“The Rainbow Seven” might be a better title for this remake of the iconic 1960 John Sturges western. In line with current Hollywood concerns about diversity, the previously all-white ensemble of seven gunmen becomes one that still includes three Caucasians, but their leader is a black man, and the three others are a Mexican, a Chinese and a Comanche warrior.
It could also be termed “The 99% Seven,” because the villain is no longer the brutal commander of a bunch of nasty banditos (straight out of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” with Eli Wallach leading the way) tormenting the poor farmers in a Mexican village, but a robber-baron-style mining lord determined to run off the hardworking folks from a little town in the American West because it happens to be sitting on a big gold deposit. This is a fellow who kills anybody who gets in his way without a thought and delivers sermons about Christianity and capitalism being one and the same. (In the Age of Trump resurrecting the Mexican bandit gang might have been deemed culturally insensitive, but it was probably the desire to bash the filthy rich who chew up ordinary people before spitting them out that dictated the change.)
These alterations aren’t themselves objectionable, of course; “The Magnificent Seven,” which was itself an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” should hardly be taken as Holy Writ, not a jot or tittle of which should be changed. But they are tiresomely predictable, and are part of the reason that Antoine Fuqua’s picture might also be called “The Merely Okay Seven.” It’s a decent oater in the modern action mode, but ultimately feels like a rather pale copy of its model.
This time around God-fearing residents of the poor little burg of Rose Creek are being intimidated by sneering Bartholomew Bogue (portrayed by the usually reliable Peter Sarsgaard in such a weirdly over-the-top turn that one must assume he’s trying to mimic every gesture and facial contortion from The Villain’s Handbook). Widow Emma (Haley Bennett) decides to seek some protectors for the town after Bogue summarily shoots her husband (Matt Bomer, getting little screen time before being sprawled in the dust). She finds Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington), a lawman who’s just dispatched a bunch of baddies in a nearby town and seems curiously willing to undertake the mission she proposes, although the reason behind his determination won’t be revealed until much later.
Sam assembles his crew, some by persuasion and others pretty much by chance. They include Josh Faraday (Chris Platt, bringing some welcome tongue-in-cheek glee to the proceedings), a card shark who uses magic tricks to distract his enemies; Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke, exulting in cynical despair), an erstwhile Confederate super-sniper who’s accompanied by his knife-wielding Chinese chum Billy Rocks (impassive Byung-hun Lee); Vasquez (posturing Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Mexican outlaw gunslinger; Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio, who easily takes the Rooster Cogburn award for flamboyant but amusing excess), a grizzled mountain man with a streak of religious mania; and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier, impeccably groomed and with war paint to match), a master of bow and arrow.
This is not an uninteresting group, but unhappily the script by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk shortchanges any sort of character development, content in presenting the seven in single strokes that are simply repeated. (Chisholm, dressed all in black, is more like an apparition out of a Sergio Leone movie than a recollection of the original Chris, whom Yul Brynner played in Sturges’ film.) Instead the picture devolves into a succession of gun battles—the first a fairly standard street shoot-out, the second the protracted showdown against Bogue and his mercenary army, complete with dynamite explosions and that other 1879 weapon of mass destruction, the rapid-fire gattling gun—which is preceded by a semi-comic montage of our heroes training the townsmen in the fine art of defensive warfare. Naturally in the commotion many die, especially on Bogue’s side, but some on the side of good perish as well, and get suitably extravagant death scenes to match the courage they’ve shown. There is also the obligatory final confrontation between Chisholm and Borge, and a concluding ride into the sunset that cements the movie’s emphasis on diversity. Guess who survives.
The newest “Seven” boasts effectively moody widescreen cinematography by Mauro Fiore, though some of the outdoor scenes near the start have a processed look, with apparently real foregrounds set against mountains that actually resemble paintings; and in the early going Fuqua and Fiore show an unhappy predilection for extreme close-ups that, thankfully, recedes over time. Editor John Refoua’s work is generally decent, but he can’t give much clarity to the big concluding battle, where all sense of topography is lost in the muddle. The film represented the last work of composer James Horner, who died before finishing the job; as completed by Simon Franglen, it’s mostly a standard swooping sort of score, but with insistent recollections of the note progression that introduced the classic theme for the 1960 film. Those teases burst out in a full-throated rendition of Elmer Bernstein’s memorable tune, however, only when the final credits come up.
Frankly that nostalgia-laden reprise serves to emphasize that while this new edition of the much-told story is better than intervening attempts (some inferior sequels, a flop TV series) and makes for a perfectly watchable couple of hours, it certainly doesn’t match the standard Sturges and his charismatic cast—which also included Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter and Horst Buchholtz—set nearly sixty years ago.