The Magnificent Seven (****) is star power at its best

mag7

Magnificent 7 – 2016

Director Antoine Fuqua
Screenplay Nic Pizzolatto, Richard Wenk based on Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa,
Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Starring  Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-Hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard, Matt Bomer, Sean Bridgers

In all fairness, I didn’t really care to see this movie. Washington has been in several good but nowhere near great films lately and I thought I would wait until it was released on video. When I came upon an extra 4 hours, I decided it was the best thing I hadn’t seen yet to pass the time. It was a grand decision.

Let’s be clear, nothing I watched in the span of 133 minutes is anything close to original. It’s the basis of most of the Westerns ever released, even if this version is properly accredited to Kurosawa’s original classic.

What one gets in a movie like this is the opportunity to try on a comfortable story with the flavors of the moment. The two primary ingredients this time, Washington and Pratt, are given the privilege of filling well worn characters with their own version of the trope. They are marvelous, but surprisingly aren’t even the best performers in the story.

That honor is awarded to Bennett and Lee. Who they play is not as important as how they play the roles. Both are fearless in attacking their roles with a fierceness rarely seen in retread stories. Bennett is the wronged woman Emma Cullen, stepping up when everyone steps back. She’s never expected her life to be rolled over by the likes of Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard) and she’ll be damned if she takes it laying down, like the rest of the residents of her mining town Rose Creek are all too willing to do. Emma heads to the nearest town in search of help. She ends up with Warrant Officer Sam Chisolm (Washington), who accepts the opportunity at vengeance because he wants a crack at Bogue.

Chisolm gathers up the dangerously loquacious Josh Faraday (Pratt) and together they gather the United Nations of anti-heroes to come along and help. This group includes Hawke’s dangerous yet shell shocked sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux. Robicheaux just happens to be doing the Every Which Way But Loose tour with his friend Billy Rocks (Lee). To say Rocks is good with knives would be like saying Quigley’s only good with rifles. Frankley, the dude can master every type of weapon imaginable.

By far the strangest addition to the group is D’Onofrio’s grizzled old kook trapper Jack Horne. The tone of voice used from the onset is shades of latter day Brando. That voice morphs into something different, but equally indecipherable when they get to Rose Creek. As much as he needs subtitles to be understood, D’Onofrio has mastered the skill of holding the camera’s gaze. It’s not a wasted performance by any means. Let’s just say I had to acquire the taste.

Mexican outlaw (Garcia-Rulfo) is represented as more than an a brown person with an accent. His character is given some gravitas and actually fits in well with Pratt’s goofball persona, without losing any of his stoic demeanor.

Only the rogue Comanche (Sensmeier) comes closest to being a trivia question here. His motivations are never clear enough to explain his desire to join the group, especially after nearly every one of them pulls a gun on him at first meeting when it’s obvious he’s not a threat in the slightest.

Pratt makes a bit of a comeback here, after floundering a bit with Jurassic World. Even if he’s merely a more dangerous version of Star Lord, he gets the best moments of the script and never flounders the opportunity.

Washington, as usual, gets the straight man role and flourishes. He’s not been a supporting actor in so many years, it’s hard to expect that he would develop any tics at this point. He’s got the charisma of Eastwood, but he doesn’t have to rely on a snarl. He’s the most reliable actor of the last 20 years and this is a performance that brings him glory without having to do more than flex his tiniest acting muscles. His leader outshines the one note Brenner and equals Shimura’s original. What’s most incredible is that what he’s doing doesn’t even feel like acting. It’s just who he seems to be.

Sarsgaard gives us some good old greasy evil. He’s despicable and he has style. He walks on the good side of Ribisiville. That’s a good thing, because until I saw this, I didn’t know one could pull off a stylish version of Ribisi.

The best thing about this story is Lee. He continues to shine in everything he’s in. He exceeds the grasp of his caricature here. He’s just supposed to throw knives. Instead he brings charisma to every scene he’s in, while bringing depth to Hawke’s already good performance. He is the spice that moves the needle to near greatness.

Fuqua continues to succeed in Hollywood, when critics keep comparing him to Denzel’s Oscar vehicle Training Day. He turns huge profits with most projects and his actors love working for him. Working with True Detective writer Pizzolato serves the best instincts of both. There is no downtime here. This is the best PG-13 violence I have witnessed in a film. It looks dangerous and the humor works without removing the tension.

Even if you are not a fan of the recent spate of pale remakes that come along with every generation, this update is worth your time. It will take a spot in my collection, to be sure. Right after Kurosawa.

(**** out of *****)

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The Equalizer (***1/2) is brutal art in motion

Equalizer

The Equalizer – 2014

Director Antoine Fuqua
Starring Denzel Washington,  Marton Csokas, Chloë Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo
Screenplay Richard Wenk based on the TV Show by Richard Lindheim and Michael Sloane

The Equalizer is the type of story that would have agonized one to watch if it had been created by lesser talents than Fuqua and especially Denzel. Bearing only the slightest resemblance to the smooth performance of Edward Woodward in the 80’s TV show, Washington plays Robert McCall, a retired CIA SAD agent who finds himself siding with the underdog, leading him to exact vigilante justice when the situation requires his help. His actions lead to the disposal of Russian mafia wing. This brings the attention of the mafia boss, who then sends in an enforcer (Csokas) to find McCall’s identity and exact revenge.

The neither the script nor the acting is going to win any awards. Washington is gives an effective performance as a man who’s constantly balancing the morality of his actions versus the weight of his past. This is the kind of performance we have come to expect from him, but nobody even comes close to the skill he exhibits in giving the audience a window to his soul, but only the narrowest of views.

Combine this with Fuqua’s undeniable talent for perspective and beautiful scenery of even the most grotesque of situations, and you have a film worthy of multiple viewings. I never realized that one could make the reflection of water running down a street in a rainstorm work multiple times to set the mood of a film. Much of the film takes place in the dark, or through night vision, but it all works in a cohesive fashion, much in contrast to the jarring style presented in Washington’s other “protect the innocent” thriller, the completely awful Man on Fire.

Csokas provides a worthy counter balance to Washington’s character, and he has the skill to carry the lunkhead actors forced to fall for every feint presented in the film. Of course this is countered by the collection of victims the story lines up for McCall to rescue. Even Moretz gets sucked up into that void. Melissa Leo finally plays against her repulsive type as one of McCall’s old partners. Pullman also surprises as her husband and fellow retired agent. Their time in the story is so brief, it intrigues the viewer as to the potential of a sequel.

The last 1/3 of the film is a series of set ups for McCall to knock down. There is never any doubt who is going to win after we find that he is making “an exception” to his promise to not do bad stuff made to a woman no longer in his life. He has an overweight buddy who dreams of being a security guard. Once we see him handling a gun late in the film, it’s not too hard to imagine how much use he gets out of that gun by the end of the film. One hint: he ain’t Reginald Vel Johnson.

This is all augmented by Fuqua’s indelible skill in presenting Washington’s McCall as a man who tries hard not to enjoy the process of taking out bad guys with extreme prejudice. Watching the look in his eyes as he stares at a man whose life is ending by a barbed wire noose is all you need to understand the depth of contrast in this man’s character. The inventiveness of the dispatching of bad guys has more character than those who are knocked off, but wow, it all looks so cool.

Ultimately, the strength of this film is limited by its supporting characters. As good as Washington and Fuqua are, they don’t add as much flesh to the story as needed to overcome the script’s lack of depth. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. It just means it’s not a great one.

(***1/2 out of *****)