[#366Flicks] The Magnificent Twenty-One

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There are no original ideas left. Every story that can be conceived already has been. Take heart in knowing that no matter what great narrative you’ve dreamed up, someone has already done it, and better. Time is cyclical, the snake is eating its tail, nothing changes ’cause it’s all the same, the world you get’s the one you give away, it all just happens again way down the line.

But hey, no pressure, creators!

(Spoilers within.)

With the recent release of the latest Hollywood recycle, The Magnificent Seven, a movie that is a modern remake of a movie that was an American remake of a Japanese movie, I decided to trace the history of this story throughout the years.

First, we have director Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic, Seven Samurai. A farming village regularly raided by a group of bandits seeks to hire ronin samurai for defense. Made up of a ragtag bunch of seven samurai, the mercenaries build defenses around the village and train the locals to fight, all while dealing with tensions caused by the prejudices between the two classes. Samurai often think farmers are honorless scum and farmers believe samurai to be entitled and selfish. Differences are set aside when the bandits attack and, after days of battling, are defeated, but not before four of the samurai are killed.

This film has a good set-up. (It had better; it was remade twice.) A band of what are essentially superheroes who don’t necessarily like each other gather to fight off overwhelming odds. That’s good stuff! What I wasn’t expecting was the theme of class disparity. The most dramatic scene of the movie comes hours before the battle, when one character goes on a tirade shaming the samurai for their brethren running through villages and taking whatever supplies they felt they needed – much like the bandits themselves. I feel like this theme could have been explored even more, as it only comes up explicitly a few times during the film. It is an interesting conflict, though, and influences everyone throughout. For example, the samurai stay even when the odds are against them and they are only being paid with three meals a day, all in an attempt to regain their honor.

The rest of the movie is decent but quite protracted. Preparing the village and farmers for battle is shot and edited well and gave me hope that the whole movie would employ the same efficient storytelling. Instead, a bland love story, unnecessary details, and long repetitive skirmishes against the bandits drag this movie out to a full three hours, considerably more time than the acting and writing can justify. There are good ideas here as well as admirable filmmaking, especially for the time, but it could definitely be refined.

So we Americans decided to try! Six years later, 1960 saw the release of The Magnificent Seven, starring my favorite killer robot gunslinger Yul Brynner. A poor Mexican farming village, commonly besieged by a group of bandits who steal their supplies, reaches north of the border to find hired guns to help protect them. A group of seven cowboys answer the call and help to prepare the villagers for battle. The bandits get the drop on them, though, and drive the gunslingers from town. It’s then that the seven men decide they must go back simply because it’s the right thing to do. One chaotic shootout later and the bandits, along with four of our heroes, are dead.

Helped I’m sure by no longer having a language barrier, these seven heroes immediately feel more varied and distinct than the original samurai. There is more levity to be seen among this crew. Brynner is a striking and charismatic leading man, albeit a tad more Russian than your average cowpoke. Combine him with a decent supporting cast and an iconic score that is quintessential American West and you have a very pleasing package.

There are some missteps inside that package, though. Some awkwardly long scenes of the villagers celebrating feel less like character moments and more like a travel documentary showing off an exotic culture. Most frustrating is that the final confrontation is an absolute mess. Characters randomly sprint about firing wildly, the editing is sloppy and confusing, and it all feels like an unsatisfying cacophony. We’re left with a film that has a fair bit of personality, but could use some help technically.

Which brings us to 2016! This most recent rendition of The Magnificent Seven diversifies our group of seven heroes to include African-Americans, Native Americans, Mexicans, and even a knife expert from eastern Asia. Very progressive for the Old West. This group of seven men is hired to protect a town – an American one this time – from a group of villains led by a greedy industrialist looking to force the people off the land so he can have access to the valuable mines nearby. Led by Denzel Washington, a warrant officer with a personal vendetta, the group removes the corrupt sheriff from the town and defends it from an onslaught using strategy and traps to defeat the superior numbers and firepower of their attackers. Once again, four of our heroes fall in battle.

On a surface level, this cast is really fun. Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt are bona fide stars and Vincent D’Onofrio is off-beat in an entertaining way. The villain is almost a cartoon with all his metaphorical moustache twirling. While he’s almost laughably evil, that’s better for me than the non-entities the villains were in the previous iterations. Thanks to the benefit of modern technology, the action this time around is the most enjoyable and exciting by far. The tides turn back and forth and characters have time to be heroic all throughout the long final battle. If nothing else, everything looks pretty spectacular.

Unfortunately, this is also the shallowest of the three versions. Both the ’54 and ’60 takes on the story took at least a moment to explain why these characters would stay and fight even when the odds were stacked so heavily against them. In this version, almost every character has a weak motivation at best. The Native American literally shows up randomly and explains in one vague line why he chooses to join the group. There was a chance to actually improve this aspect with Washington having a grudge against the villain, but the details of this hatred come so late in the movie that I no longer cared. One can assume that they all stay and fight because “it’s the right thing to do,” but that’s never communicated well.

So which version is the best one? Which lucky number is the luckiest? For me, the most recent version is the most palatable simply by virtue of catering to my modern tastes, but I think perhaps the 1960 iteration is the most well-rounded of the three. In reality, though, they all have pros and cons and are all pretty decent. If the story sounds interesting to you, just pick the era of filmmaking that best suits your taste and you can’t go wrong.

What I’d love to do is take the tension between the heroes and the town from Seven Samurai, the sense of duty from 1960 and the personal vendetta from 2016, cap it off with the enjoyable action of this most recent one and populate it with a mixture of the best characters from all three.

Hollywood, get on that.

Other movies I watched this week (potential minor spoilers):

The Guest – Adam Wingard, director of You’re Next and Blair Witch, applies his knack for defying expectations to this thriller about a dangerous veteran returned home with a rucksack full of secrets. The film does a good job of playing with tropes in a way that keeps you guessing. The troubled vet casually commits acts of extreme violence, yet sometimes seems to be helpful and well-intentioned. In the end, we have an exciting thriller with a disturbingly sociopathic villain. I’ll be looking forward to what this director does next.

8 Mile – This semi-biographical film starring Eminem tells the story of a lower-class young man trying to start a career as a rapper. Struggling with his personal life and depending on his friends to give his career a jump start, he eventually realizes that he has to stand up and get things done his own way. Eminem plays youthful angst and frustration well. It’s a simple story when all is said and done, but it’s presented well and I found myself squarely in Eminem’s corner when the final rap battle rolls around. It helps that I’m a sucker for music movies where dramatic moments can be accompanied by song. (Or rap.)

Straight Outta Compton – A chronicle of the rise and fall of the rap group N.W.A. Strong performances and skillful storytelling make this movie dramatic and engaging. The actors playing Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube all capture their real-life counterparts very well. Dealing with controversial lyrics, corporate chicanery, racism, and camaraderie, this well-made film is a quality watch even for someone like me who knows nearly nothing about the history of these artists.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates – Based (very loosely) on a true story, Mike and Dave Stangle, a pair of party animal trouble makers, are ordered to find dates to keep them in line for their sister’s wedding. Hilariously, the young ladies they find are even worse than they are. Perfect chemistry among the four leads and an exquisitely artful massage scene with Kumail Nanjiani means I don’t mind checking my brain at the door for this lowest-common-denominator comedy. It’s raunchy, over the top, and kinda hilarious.

Chopping Mall – In this 1986 horror sci-fi movie, high-tech mall security robots are zapped by lightning and begin killing anyone they see indiscriminately, including the group of young employees who have stayed after hours to do drugs and have premarital sex. This was produced by Julie Corman, wife of schlock jock Roger Corman, and that should tell you everything you need to know. Awful one-liners, gratuitous nudity, lasers, and exploding heads. Nothing here is “good,” but if you get a kick out of super-cheesy camp like I do, you’ll find something to enjoy.

Casablanca – Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, a neutral American running a club in Casablanca in unoccupied France during WWII, has his lack of loyalties tested when a former love returns to him. I decided for my final movie I’d watch a classic that often is found near the top of the list of best movies ever. And deservedly so! I was immediately fascinated by this movie’s setting: a neutral ground where people from all sides of the worldwide conflict congregate and form tense uncertain alliances. It’s rife with drama. I was always curious how all the wheeling and dealing would play out and who would betray whom. At the center of it all is the romance of one woman caught between the two men she loves and who love her just as much. Memorable dialogue, an interesting setting and story, and a borderline fetish for the song “As Time Goes By” make this a high-quality classic Hollywood picture for any era.

Click here to see a full list of all the movies I’ve seen. All of them. They’re all there. Every last one. Done. Finito. Completed. Mission Accomplished. Cut. Print. Roll credits. Thank you, and good day sir.

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