Had I seen Antoine Fuqua’s (Southpaw) remake when it released, I think my reaction would have been a bit more negative than it is now. Frankly, it is a middling recreation of the original film and a shadow of Seven Samurai, which was the root source material. But the opening scene resonates very differently than it might have only 6 weeks ago.
The setup scene features Peter Sarsgaard (Pawn Sacrifice) as the truly evil mine owner proclaiming in church the connection between capitalism, democracy, and god. A more prescient speech could not have been written this year. Much like seeing V for Vendetta just after the election when it released, seeing this after the election filtered my reaction. Sadly, unlike V, this did not sustain the ideas and simply devolves into a violent confrontation with only a minor sense of satisfaction.
Haley Bennet (Kaboom!) and Matt Bomer (Magic Mike XXL) help sell those opening moments well. Without their performance, the rest of the movie wouldn’t make sense. Again, this sense and intensity slowly dissipates as the movie goes on, but it gets it off on the right foot.
But the real kudos in this movie for characters go to Vincent D’Onofrio (Phantom Boy) and Ethan Hawke (Sinister). Each creates a character with some depth and emotion. D’Onofrio wasn’t even recognizable when he first hits the screen. While Hawke actually gets a subplot in the tale, D’Onofrio’s addition is purely by his own force of will and presentation; we infer almost all of it based on the nuance of his performance.
Byung-hun Lee (Terminator: Genisys) backs-up Hawke rather well, but gets little story for himself. There is some interesting tension between the two men, but we never really understand what their story was or is. Lastly, the mostly unknown Martin Sensmeier has a quiet, but intense, role in the gang of defenders. You may have noticed I didn’t even mention Denzel Washington (Flight) or Chris Pratt (Jurassic World). While both men deliver well enough, neither really stood out as much of anything for me.
I will say that his is a beautifully filmed Western with vistas that suck you into the landscape the way John Sturges original did. Fuqua did make the cagey choice to avoid most of the recognizable music from that original to avoid comparisons, but that only held me back from connecting to the story as I kept waiting for it. I was glad he included the classic, haunting horns through the final third, at least. But if it weren’t for that opening scene, I’d probably have been rather bored. If you have a choice, view the original or, better yet, Seven Samurai, both of which have a lot more to offer. Or, if you want to see a modern Western that can sustain its ideas, pop in Hateful 8 or Django Unchained… Tarantino may be a lot more violent, but his stories have a point amidst the blood that doesn’t get lost in the equally magnificent scenery.