The Magnificent Seven (2016)


Don't ever mess with Denzel.

Don’t ever mess with Denzel.

(2016) Western (MGM/Columbia) Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Hailey Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard, Luke Grimes, Matt Bomer, Jonathan Joss, Cam Gigandet, Emil Beheshti, Mark Ashworth, Billy Slaughter, Dodge Prince, Matthew Posey, Dane Rhodes, Jody Mullins, Carrie Lazar. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

 

We often feel helpless about things. Those in power have too much money, too much power, too many guns. They have control over everything and we basically just have to take it and as time goes by, it becomes harder and harder to exist while those who are in charge seem to have it easier and easier, and do more injustice to us with impunity. In a situation like that, who are you gonna call?

In the town of Rose Creek, it’s easy to recognize who is oppressing them; it’s Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard), a ruthless industrialist who runs the gold mine outside of town. He has bought and paid for the Sheriff (Rhodes) and treats his miners like slaves. Now he’s turned his sights to the town which he wants to destroy so he can further mine gold deposits he thinks might be there. He is trying to intimidate them into leaving – and it’s largely working, but some of the townspeople are willing to stay and fight. Those must be taught a lesson and that lesson ends with Matthew Cullen (Bomer), a good-hearted farmer, gunned down in front of the church which is also burned out.

His widow, Emma Cullen (Bennett) then goes in search of a gunman who can bring her if not justice at least vengeance. She finds Sam Chisolm (Washington), a duly licensed officer of the court from Wichita, Kansas – or a bounty hunter, which is what he really is. When Emma explains what’s happening in Rose Creek, at first he’s reluctant to get involved – until he finds out who is doing unto the good citizens of Rose Creek. Then he’s ready to take on an army.

He’ll need some tough characters to take on the murderous mercenaries that Bogue has hired. First up is gambler Josh Faraday (Pratt) who essentially owes Chisolm for getting his horse out of hock. After that came sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Hawke) and his associate Billy Rocks (Lee), an immigrant from Asia and an expert with knives. Then there’s the Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo) and the Comanche brave Red Harvest (Sensmeier). Finally there’s Jack Horne (D’Onofrio), a legendary trapper.

It is seven hard men against an army. When they ride into town, they take Bogue’s men by surprise and take over the town but they know that Bogue, who is in Sacramento at the time, will be back with many, many more men. They train the townspeople to defend themselves and they also liberate the miners who also will make their stand there. But how can they, when the bad guys are so many, so much better armed and so much more experienced at fighting?

This is of course a remake of the classic John Sturges western of 1960 which in itself was a remake of the 1954 Akira Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai. Fuqua, who directed Washington to an Oscar in Training Day, is a big fan of Westerns in general and The Magnificent Seven was always one of his favorites. Feeling that the themes of tyranny and terrorism were even more apt today than they were in 1960, he took on the daunting task of remaking an iconic Western which in many ways made the career of Steve McQueen (in the Josh Faraday role).

The cast here is pretty top notch. Washington is at the top of his game, channeling Clint Eastwood and Gary Cooper. Few actors in Hollywood today can play a badass as effectively as Washington can; despite the 70s porn star mustache, he is intimidating and tough as nails. He also looks pretty freaking good for a man in his 60s.

Pratt like Washington is an enormous star and here he brings his trademark irreverence to the role, making Josh Faraday not just comic relief (which he is occasionally) but a badass in his own right. This role isn’t going to advance his career any further but it isn’t going to knock it backwards either. Pratt has a tendency to play the same role over and over again recently and this is more of the same.

Hawke has a good turn as the sharpshooter whose Civil War experiences haunts him and has made him reluctant to take up the rifle again. For my money though, one of the performances you’ll remember is D’Onofrio, whose high squeaky voice doesn’t sound remotely like what we’re used to from him, but plays Horne honestly and with relative dignity. He just about steals the movie.

Fuqua gets points for casting ethnic actors into the proper roles; a Hispanic actor plays the Mexican, a Korean actor the Asian and an Inuit actor the Native American. There isn’t really any mention of racial prejudices which in that era were prevalent and extreme; few white people would have sought or accepted help from an African American, even if they were desperate, nor would they have looked to Mexican or Native help as well – most white settlers considered all three ethnic groups subhuman. I like the diversity of the cast, but I do think that ethnicity should have been addressed at least somewhat.

The final confrontation between Bogue and his men and the townspeople takes up the bulk of the movie and is epic in scope. There’s some decent fight choreography here and while it doesn’t up the ante in action scenes, it at least distinguishes itself as well staged and exciting. The gunfight is everything you’d want from a climactic battle, so kudos for that.

I don’t think anyone can reasonably expect this movie to be replacing the original in the hearts and minds. I’m pretty sure that isn’t why Fuqua made it. Unfortunately, it will be held up against the original – whether Seven Samurai or the 1960 version – and it will come up short against both of those. However, taken on its own merits it’s not that bad but to be honest not that bad doesn’t measure up when it comes to two classic predecessors.

REASONS TO GO: Washington and Pratt are huge stars. D’Onofrio turns in one of his most interesting performances in years.
REASONS TO STAY: Nothing is really added to the source material here. The racism of the era is glossed over.
FAMILY VALUES: As with most westerns, there’s plenty of rootin’, tootin’ and shootin’. There’s also a bit of foul language and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be the final score by Oscar winning composer James Horner as he passed away June 22, 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wild Bunch
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Blue Jay

The Rundown


The Rock smells what this little guy is cooking.

The Rock smells what this little guy is cooking.

(2003) Action (Universal) Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Seann William Scott, Rosario Dawson, Christopher Walken, William Lucking, Ewen Bremner, Jon Gries, Ernie Reyes Jr., Stuart F. Wilson, Dennis Keiffer, Garrett Warren, Toby Holguin, Paul Power, Stephen Bishop. Directed by Peter Berg

Hollywood is in short supply of action stars these days, with the usual suspects getting long in the tooth, short at the box office or departed to other careers. But the search for new blood netted a real find in The Rock. Wrestling star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a success in The Mummy Returns and its spin-off, The Scorpion King. Now he’s cast in a more mainstream action flick, and the Hollywood powers-that-be were anxious to see if The Rock could open a movie that doesn’t have a built-in audience.

With material this good, he sure can. Here he plays Beck, a beleaguered bounty hunter who really wants to be a chef. He does the bounty hunting gig to pay off a debt to Walker (Lucking), a shady character who arranges to clear Beck of all obligation and supply him with enough stake to open his dream restaurant if he can retrieve one last item: the gangster’s son Travis (Scott) from the Amazon. Beck agrees to the deal.

With an incomprehensible Irish pilot named Declan (Bremmer), Beck arrives in a pimple of an Amazon town that’s run by the nefarious Hatcher (Walken) as his own personal kingdom, brutally forcing imprisoned laborers to mine gold. Beck wants no part of this; he’s just there for his man. However, Travis has actually found the location of a priceless treasure called El Gato. The local rebels want it to finance their fight against Hatcher; Hatcher wants it because he’s greedy. Travis wants it to make his reputation.

The pair go into the jungle to find the item, accompanied by the beautiful bartender Mariana (Dawson). Along the way, they run into a pack of libidinous monkeys, combative men of tiny stature with a predilection for vines and kicking the Rock around like a bitch, and an interesting fruit that gives the consumer a unique viewpoint.

It’s hard to classify this; it could be a comedy with action, or an action film with comedy. Both sides of the equation work marvelously. The Rock is able to lampoon his own persona while enhancing it, and has plenty of acting chops. The time is not far off where he will be tackling roles that we wouldn’t ever have associated with a pro wrestler.

Walken is, as always, worth the price of admission all by himself. A scene where he tries to explain the Tooth Fairy to a group of tribesmen is a classic. Scott, best known as Stifler in the American Pie movies, is satisfactory as a second banana. He’s smarmy and self-centered, but audiences can still empathize with him. Dawson has become a terrific leading lady; previous to this she had appeared in Men in Black 2 and had been intriguing there.

Director Peter Berg also did a wonderful black comedy called Very Bad Things which was in fact a very good thing. As with that film he deftly weaves the action and comedy elements into a cohesive whole, a very much more difficult task than it sounds. While best-known to the public as an actor on the Chicago Hope series, he’s also directed some fairly decent films since this one including Friday Night Lights and Hancock. However, in the interest of full disclosure he also directed the alien invasion film Battleship as well.

Had this been released during the summer, The Rundown would have been a massive hit. As it stands, it came in under the radar to a very large extent; it didn’t make my list of must-see fall films that year and as a matter of fact, a lot of critics wrote it off until they actually saw it. What it did turn out to be was the movie that was the bridge the summer blockbusters with the fall and winter hits in 2003. It’s safe to say we can all smell what The Rock is cooking: stardom and this was a very key ingredient in that dish.

WHY RENT THIS: The Rock’s charisma and charm is in full flower. Well-written, poking fun at the Rock’s image while enhancing it. Nice action sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The Rock wasn’t as good an actor as he would later come to be and some of the scenes are a bit awkward. A bit cliché in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a bit of violence (although nothing too over-the-top) and some crude dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: There is a cameo by legendary action star Arnold Schwarzenegger as a patron in the bar scene. He happened on the set while filming an appearance as The Terminator for the Super Bowl. He was approached to do the shot and was agreeable. Fans have pointed to him saying “Have fun” to Johnson as a passing of the torch from one action legend to another.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on actor Christopher Walken and a parody feature on an E!-style channel about the monkeys.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $80.9M on an $85M production budget; the movie was unsuccessful on its theatrical run although I understand it has since become profitable on home video.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Tamara Drewe

Cowboys & Aliens


Cowboys & Aliens

If these townsfolk had seen Battlestar: Gallactica they'd be running and screaming by now.

(2011) Sci-Fi Western (DreamWorks/Universal) Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Paul Dano, Noah Ringer, Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown, Ana de la Reguera, Abigail Spencer, Toby Huss, Walton Goggins, Raoul Trujillo. Directed by Jon Favreau

We all know that stagecoaches belong in Westerns and starships in Sci-Fi movies and never the twain shall meet. Why that is, I’m not sure – but at last the twain have actually met.

A stranger (Craig) wakes up in the badlands of the New Mexico territory circa 1873. He has no idea where he is and no memory of who he is. He also has a strange shackle on his wrist and a strange wound in his side that is still bleeding but half-cauterized. He is immediately beset by a trio of bounty hunters but apparently he knows how to fight and he definitely knows how to kill, besting the three of them, stealing their clothes, their gold, one of their horses and their dog.

He rides into the town of Absolution, and enters a house on the outskirts to freshen up. The owner of the house, Preacher Meacham (Brown) takes exception to this but eventually warms up to the lost lamb and helps stitch up his wound.

Later on, Percy Dolarhyde (Dano) goes on a drunken rampage shooting up the town, despite attempts by Nat Colorado (Beach), the right-hand man of Percy’s father to placate him, and the pleas for clemency by saloon owner Doc (Rockwell) and his wife Maria (De la Reguera). That’s Doc’s wife, not Percy’s by the way.

Percy accidentally shoots a sheriff’s deputy and the stranger eventually subdues him. Sheriff Taggart (Carradine) recognizes the stranger from a wanted poster; he’s Jake Lonergan, a notorious stagecoach bandit and murderer. Taggart’s attempts to capture Lonergan appear to be going south when a mysterious beautiful woman, Ella Swenson (Wilde) clocks Lonergan with a 2×4 and knocks him cold.

Meanwhile, Percy’s father, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) is investigating some of his cattle who have been burned along with his men who have gone missing when word reaches him that his son has been arrested. The wealthy and powerful Colonel Dolarhyde rides into town with Nat and a posse of his men to go take his son out of custody and also to remove Lonergan, who had most recently stolen a shipment of Dolarhyde’s gold.  

Things are just about to get ugly when they are interrupted by the appearance of strange lights in the sky. Those lights turn out to be alien spaceships which launch concussive fireballs into the town, knocking over buildings but harming nobody. That might be because the aliens are abducting the townspeople, including Percy, Maria and Sheriff Taggart. The day is saved somewhat by Lonergan, whose shackle hides a weapon that takes down one of the alien ships. It turns out that is the only effective weapon against them, so when Colonel Dolarhyde wants to go rescue his son and the other townspeople, he insists that Lonergan go with them.

Lonergan has no such plan however and rides off on his own to find out who he is and why he has this metal doo-hickey on his wrist. The secret of his identity may rest with the mysterious Ella and the mystery of who Jake Lonergan is and what happened to him may hold the key to saving the world from these nasty aliens.

Favreau is currently riding high as one of comicdom’s fan favorites on the strength of Iron Man and its sequel. While his latest film is ostensibly based on the Platinum Studios comic of the same name, in reality it shares little in common besides the title.

Favreau had originally wanted to cast Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role but when he had to bow out to work on Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows Daniel Craig was cast instead and a fine bit of luck that was. Craig is far better at the Eastwood-like mysterious stranger than I think Downey would have been and he interacts with Ford in a much more believable manner.

Having Ford and Craig as your leads in a Western is about as fortuitous casting as it gets. Ford in particular is gruff and curmudgeonly, snarling and barking like a dog but having something of a puppy heart deep down. Craig, James Bond aside, is an excellent action hero and while Favreau has characterized Ford as the modern John Wayne, I think a case could be made for Craig as a modern Gary Cooper as well.

Overall, the cast is pretty nifty with Brown taking high marks as the Preacher who may look like a missing cough drop brother but has a surprisingly modern take on faith. Dano gets some of the best comic bits as the sniveling son of the wealthy rancher (a cliché that he helped make palatable here) and Wilde is surprisingly good as the mysterious woman – I hadn’t seen much of her work but now I’ll definitely be looking forward to seeing more of her in future roles. Beach is one of my favorite character actors ever since he emerged in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (he also grew up in Winnipeg which adds further points) and he continues to impress here. Sam Rockwell, one of the better actors working today, has a minor role that Rockwell underplays nicely. Having the sheriff’s nephew along for the posse’s ride is unnecessary and ridiculous – his part could have easily have been taken by a teenager or an adult. You don’t need a kid in every single film to save the day y’know.

The western vistas of New Mexico look great on the big screen here and three cheers to Favreau for resisting the studio’s pressure to film this in 3D. I think the movie benefitted by being left in traditional 2D and the bright sunlit canyons and badlands look better without the polarized lens of the modern 3D glasses.

The action sequences are at times amazing, with CGI alien ships going at Apaches and gunslingers going full-tilt on horseback. The aliens themselves are plenty scary, with a sturdy shell-like carapace, recessed hands and a real cruelty and lust for gold. Think of them as intergalactic versions of bankers and mortgage company CEOs. Okay, maybe they’re not that evil.

At the end of the day, a movie like this has to be fun and for the most part it is – the ratio of action to exposition should have leaned a little heavier towards the former but there is still enough of it to make this worth your while. If you don’t go for Westerns, the sci-fi element might be enough to make it palatable while if you don’t like sci-fi, you might take comfort in the western elements instead. If you don’t like either one, well, this is good enough filmmaking for you to check out anyway. I had hoped for a little bit better, but it is entertaining nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Ford and Craig provide plenty of star power and Wilde, Rockwell, Beach, Dano and Brown provide fine support. Interesting mash-up of genres.

REASONS TO STAY: Action sequences are great but too far between. The kid is completely unnecessary here.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence and bloodshed, some disturbing creature effects, a little bit of partial nudity and some kids in jeopardy – the very young will probably get nightmares out of this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first comic book from Platinum Studios to be adapted to the big screen; this is the third comic adaptation from DreamWorks (after The Road to Perdition and Over the Hedge).

HOME OR THEATER: This is definitely a summer popcorn flick meant to be seen in a multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Crazy, Stupid, Love