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Antoine Fuqua gets all magnificent, again

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Director Antoine Fuqua's remake of The Magnificent Seven (which was a remake of Seven Samurai) has enough in common with the Yul Brynner/Steve McQueen original to make it feel like a retelling of the classic story. It also contains enough departures from the original to make it feel like a fresh take rather than just a rehash.

The Mexican bandits led by Eli Wallach in the original are replaced by an evil, land-stealing company led by Bartholomew Bogue. As played by Peter Sarsgaard, Bogue is a memorable villain that makes the skin crawl. He rolls into a mining town, kills a bunch of good, hard-working people, and winds up getting the male grouping of the movie's title on his ass. Let the spectacular gunfights commence!

Fuqua pal Denzel Washington (they did The Equalizer and Training Day together) is first rate as Chisolm, basically Brynner's role from the 1960 classic. When the wife of one of the deceased (Haley Bennett) comes looking for help and mentioning Bogue's name, Chisolm flies into calm, collected and most certainly valiant action. He enlists six other men to visit the town and prepare the townspeople for the fight of their lives.

The Magnificent Seven include Chisolm, scheming alcoholic gunslinger Faraday (Chris Pratt), the knife wielding Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), the Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D'Onofrio), Vasquez the "Texican" as Faraday coins him (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Comanche Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).

Each member of the cast does a nice job building their character in the just-over two hour film. Hawke (also Fuqua film frequenter) is especially good as the once heartless sharpshooter who now has a case of the Jon Voight-in-Deliverance shakes when he tries to kill a living thing. I've said it before and I'll say it here again: Hawke is the most improved actor I've witnessed in my years of reviewing movies. This guy used to be the worst thing on a movie screen, and now he is simply one of the best.

Pratt scores laughs as the slightly racist, Archie Bunker-with-a-pistol member of the crew. D'Onofrio is equally funny, sometimes employing a high-pitched voice, as a man of honorable means who will, however, crush your face with his boot if you steal from him.

Fuqua certainly knows how to stage an action scene, and the action scenes in this one are absolutely thrilling. Every gunfight is expertly staged and beautifully tense, especially the final standoff. I was reminded watching this movie that if it weren't for that final battle in The Magnificent Seven, we wouldn't have had those final battles in Blazing Saddles and The Three Amigos.

While the film somehow scored a PG-13, it's worth noting that it's a borderline PG-13 in that it is very violent. There are not only a lot of gun deaths in this movie, but some serious stabbing and slashing with knives and forks and things. I was actually surprised by how brutal the film was. I guess the MPAA has some sort of blood volume they allow for, and a movie can stab and shoot as much as it wants as long as no more than two quarts or so of fake blood is spilled. By my eye, this sucker is an R-rated movie.

If anything takes the film down a notch, it's the all-too-clean production value. The sets often look like something out of Disney's Frontierland, and the costuming is a little too clean and spiffy. For appearances, I prefer westerns that are a little grittier (Eastwood's Unforgiven being the high watermark).

The Magnificent Seven gets the fall movie season off to a good start. It's actually the sort of well-cast, thrilling blockbuster we expect to see in the summer. It kicks ass on most of the so-called summer blockbuster offerings, and gives the old-time western and remake genres a decent addition.

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