Despite the love they receive from most cineastes, Westerns are an acquired taste. The tropes and cliches that made the genre great (tumbleweeds, the good and bad guy in a standoff in the dusty main street, the despotic local rancher with the decent, God-fearing pioneers under his thumb, etc) have such a distinctive flavour and style they leave many moviegoers cold.
They can get very high and mighty with subtexts and archetypes, but just like The Coen Brothers’ True Grit, The Magnificent Seven is much more of a crowd pleaser, concerned with the visceral reactions of mirth, thrill and the satisfaction in revenge.
The good citizens of Rose Creek toil in the sun in the shadow of the mine owned by local industrialist Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), and when they decide in church to stand up to his cruelty and exploitation, it ends in bloodshed. Newly widowed young townswoman Emma (Haley Bennett) approaches local legend Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington, as cool as ice like always dressed constantly in all black) to help prepare the town to defend itself and see Bogue and his private army off for good.
Chisolm takes the job, and the film is divided neatly in two. The first half shows him collecting the rest of the squad – goofy gambler Farady (Chris Pratt) war hero Goodnight (Ethan Hawke) and his knife wielding Asian sidekick (Byung-hun Lee), eccentric tracker Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), a redskin they meet along the way named Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) and Mexican thug Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo).
The script gives them all ample time to introduce themselves as the group grows in number, and even though it could have been a little episodic in lesser hands, director Antoine Fuqua (who paired Washington and Hawke on Training Day) keeps things humming along at a decent clip. As we see the character dynamics, the team trains the townspeople in the art of war following Pogue’s warning that he’ll be back in a week and that they better be ready to show him a bit more respect.
The second half is a shoot-out and bloodbath with a body count to rival most war movies that’s a thrill a minute. As wave after wave of Pogue’s men descend on Rose Creek the Seven’s elaborate ruses, traps, training and skills cut them down by the dozen.
As bullets, knives and arrows fly it makes you realise what a cool videogame a movie tie-in might make. Pogue seems to have an endless supply of grizzled assassins he can throw at Rose Creek, and the only mystery is where the good guys get so many rounds.
It’s a spectacular (and spectacularly long) climax that will either keep you on the edge of your seat or bore you senseless depending on how you think you’d respond if Michael Bay made a western (yes, there is a giant machine gun and an even more giant explosion).
Nobody in the cast need do much but stare balefully and crack the occasional joke, and an army of stunt coordinators and gun wranglers do the rest. Don’t search for any depth beyond the classic visuals and good guys vs bad guys prototypes that made the genre what it is and enjoy yourself.