I was so looking forward to seeing this movie. Chris Pratt, Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio. A western. Plus a remake/new version of two of the greatest movies ever: Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954) and John Sturges The Magnificent Seven (1960). A terrific trailer, using a hard rockin’ version of The House of the Rising Sun to drive it. Anthony Fuqua directing. It had everything going for it.
Except a good movie. It wasn’t the worst movie I’ve seen this year. It was a pretty conventional action thriller, with a higher body count than most. Denzel did Denzel things and Chris Pratt did Chris Pratt things and some of the battle sequences were well-staged. Byung-hun Lee has the chops to hold down an action movie on his own some day, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo does the gunfighter pistol-twirling thing as well as anyone I’ve ever seen. Also, who’s Martin Sensmeier? As the film’s token Native American good guy, he had some real charisma.
So the movie was ah-aight. But the earlier two movies it’s based on are among the finest films ever made. They’re films with astonishing action sequences, but in a context of moral ambiguity, pain, tragedy, human complexity. I don’t know what went wrong this time, but it’s the biggest disappointment of the year, even more so than the recent mediocre Ben-Hur. Hollywood seems intent these days in taking absolutely great movies of the past and wrecking our recollection of them with these crappy remakes. Thanks for the meh-mories, guys.
Could it have been better? Absolutely. The performance of the movie came from Haley Bennett, playing a young widow named Emma. She’s the woman who finds Chisholm (Denzel), and hires him to hire a few more guns, to fight off the marauding hordes of nasty businessman Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). That’s the plot, basically. But Bennett grounds her too infrequent scenes in an overpowering foundation of pure grief. Missed opportunity; we see Faraday (Pratt), the gambler, checking her out, and we get a sense of a womanizer sizing up his next prey. But he never does make his move; he’s a perfect gentleman. He’s a professional gambler and card cheat, and he murders his card victims. Faraday is a thoroughly unpleasant character as written–which is great dramaturgically. After all, the Seven aren’t supposed to be good guys. It’s a movie where both sides are morally compromised, and if the Seven finally do redeem themselves, it’s due to their brave fight against impossible odds.
So, really, Faraday should make a move on Emma. And who knows, maybe she even consents, to a meaningless tryst that might solidify this particular gunman’s commitment to her fight? Why not? It doesn’t mean anything to her; in Bennett’s performance, this woman has ceased caring about anything, except the deaths of the men who murdered her husband.
Instead, Chris Pratt is allowed to be winsome and cute and heroic, and Haley Bennett’s brilliant performance is wasted in a generic shoot-em up. What a shame.
(Haley Bennett, BTW, was only in one other movie I’ve seen, a paint-by-numbers rom com, Music and Lyrics (2007). She played a spoiled pop singer, a Miley Cyrus-like diva, who wants Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore to write a song for her. She was hilarious; she kind of walked off with the movie. Totally different character than the widow in this movie. My gosh, this woman can act!)
Ethan Hawke is great too, playing Goodnight Robicheaux, a washed up, deeply haunted sharp shooter, now surviving as a hustler, managing Billy Rocks, a fighter (Kim). Again, he’s an essentially tragic character, adding a moral seriousness to this shoot-em-up. Again, I can’t help but think of the possibilities, if the script had ever been interested in creating morally ambiguous characters. The movie wasn’t, though. For shame.
And Vincent D’Onofrio. Remember how good he’s been; Edgar in Men in Black, the bad guy in the new Jurassic World. He’s just one of the great American character actors. In this, he affects a high pitched whine of a character voice, and plays up his character’s religious mania, and it’s a tremendous performance. Wasted, of course.
Finally, Sarsgaard as Bogue, with a comic book name and a badly underwritten character, gives the film’s villain a twitchy face and a dead-eyed sociopathic stare. And the character offers three motivations for his evil behavior. One: a liberal’s caricature of conservatism–God wants us capitalists to pursue wealth. Two: a nihilist’s ‘what does anything matter’ cynicism. And Three: a religious mania; culminating in a Hamlet-can’t-kill-repenting-Claudius moment. Sarsgaard’s another good actor, but even he can’t make this character work as written. Still, bad action films need bad guys.
That’s all this is. A bad action movie, an opportunity to pile up dead bodies (but they’re all evil, so it’s okay). All the good guys can shoot brilliantly, and their guns only need to be reloaded when the plot requires it. And their plans work splendidly. And the townspeople are revealed as honest and courageous. And all the children live, though almost none of the grown-ups. In the real old West, at the OK corral, only three men died in a 30 second gun battle. In this thing, it’s closer to three hundred. But that’s okay. Chris Pratt got to be in a Western, and Denzel Washington got to be in quite another Western, and Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio got to share one, while Haley Bennett gave the performance of the movie in a different movie entirely. I hope it lost money.