Historical entertainment planned for joint celebration of three Southwest Arkansas milestone anniversaries
The most elemental tales of the American West involve a dynamic stranger protecting pioneers or homesteaders trying to make a go of things. Consider "Shane," or "The Outlaw Josey Wales," or, hell, even "Rango" — the stranger who rides into town may be reluctant, he may have a past, but in the end he'll sacrifice some part of himself for civil society. That the stranger in question is typically adept at gunplay rather than, say, contract negotiation or tort law says something about the way America thought of itself as a youngster. The people motivated by hope, optimism, a desire to worship freely, to command their own destinies were prey to railroad barons, bankers and thugs aligned with money. Big business, in this telling, is the enemy of rule of law and of regular folks, and the only thing that keeps everything from going to hell is a grizzled someone who doesn't mind putting a slug in a bandit.
"The Magnificent Seven," re-remade this year by Antoine Fuqua, a director more comfortable orchestrating mass-scale shootouts than conversations, ratchets up that formula in the style of its precursors from 1960 and, like Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai," does so by pulling together, yes, seven warriors with hearts of gold. Denzel Washington is a lawman named Chisolm who's tracking dirtbags across the plains when he's approached by a newly widowed farmer (Haley Bennett, making for an "Equalizer" reunion with Washington and Fuqua) who implores him to fight off a mining magnate who's buying up her town and killing whoever won't sell. The villainous capitalist (a tarry-souled Peter Sarsgaard) has a mercenary army at his disposal. Chisolm has whatever he can round up in the next few days.
The sellswords he finds hanging around the frontier turn out to be no rag-tag group, but more like a United Nations of ass-kickers. You've got your pistol-slinging card sharp (Chris Pratt), your knife-throwing Chinese dude (Byung-hun Lee) hanging with your deadeye Confederate vet (Ethan Hawke); your wisecracking Mexican outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo); your hulking gentle spiritual tracker who likes to throw tomahawks (Vincent D'Onofrio); and your badass Comanche archer (Martin Sensmeier). They're outgunned and outmanned — but there are seven of them, which makes for spryer storytelling than a single, mute mope riding into town.
The camaraderie helps pull together a cast that was bound to be compared, maybe unfairly, to the 1960 iteration that brought together Steve McQueen, Yul Brenner, Charles Bronson and James Coburn. But here, aside from Washington, who's not only a fine actor but a bona fide movie star, is where this remake finds its footing: in letting a cast of lesser lights show off what makes them enjoyable to watch on screen. Say what you want about Chris Pratt's acting abilities; he's entering that Channing Tatum realm of action-comedy star who'd rather pocket $10 million and make you laugh your ass off than bait Oscar voters. (Although, dang, did the Academy miss "Magic Mike XXL" or what?). D'Onofrio, as the eccentric woodsman given to flights of sincerity, also resonates.
It ain't really high cinema, but the word that came to mind midway through "The Magnificent Seven" was "crowd-pleaser." Granted, I saw this in downtown Brooklyn, where moviegoers are happily rowdy — laughing, hollering, clapping — but the weekend audience was loving every minute. Nothing gets too complicated. There's a bad guy, some freaked-out townsfolk, and seven good guys drinking hard, playing cards, making lewd jokes and absolutely shooting the bejeezus out of thugs on horseback. All the elements of an iconic American story are here — short of, say, two women ever having a discussion together. We'll be retelling this again one day, or maybe seven.