The Magnificent Seven (2016)

magnificent_seven_20161From a young age, I’ve always been drawn to the western genre. Though I have many I like, love and adore, there’s only one that I claim as my favorite, and that’s 1960’s The Magnificent Seven. So when I found out a remake was in the works with a solid action director and a pretty impressive cast? I was nervous yet excited. Away we go with 2016’s The Magnificent Seven.

It’s 1879 in the mining town of Rose Creek and a ruthless industrialist, Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), brutally runs the town and claims the mining rights, even murdering several townspeople. Watching her husband gunned down by Bogue, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) has had enough and rides to a nearby town seeking help. There she finds bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) who agrees to help and starts by assembling an eclectic mix of gunslingers, fighters and specialists, including a hard-drinking gambler named Faraday (Chris Pratt). With six men backing him up, Chisolm rides out to Rose Creek and takes over the town. Now, all the seven can do is wait as Bogue and a small army begins the march to re-take the town. Can Chisolm and his crew defend the town?

Why touch the 1960 version? Simply put, Hollywood didn’t need to. But still, big-budget westerns are few and far between in theaters so I was always on-board as production and filming kicked off. Long story short…it’s a good and not great western that’s a lot of fun but has some major issues/flaws. I still recommend it — especially for western fans — and I’ll definitely watch it again, but flaws are flaws. Be warned!

Screen Shot 2016-09-27 at 12.22.36 PM.pngFrom director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter, The Equalizer), ‘Magnificent’ gets points for its knowledge and respect of the western genre. The movie looks great, including the tension-packed staredowns building to the shootout, the riders silhouetted against the horizon, with some gorgeous filming locations in Louisiana and New Mexico. Though he died before he could complete the score, composer James Horner started his score, with his friend and business partner Simon Franglen finishing the score. Nothing hugely memorable with some recurring themes, but solid enough. It’s hard to live up to the famous reputation of the original Elmer Bernstein score. Naturally.

Right up there with Bernstein’s score is the casting of the original; Brynner, McQueen, Bronson, Coburn, Vaughn, Wallach and others. M7 2.016? It’s not bad. Washington is one of the best actors out there, and he’s a good fit as the man in black, Sam Chisolm, a law officer of sorts who’s lightning fast with a gun. LIGHTNING quick. Still on the rise as a star, Pratt makes a gutsy call going for the sidekick role as Faraday, the hard-drinking, quick-thinking gambler who’s good with a pistol. Who else to round out the 7? There’s Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a legendary sharpshooter, Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), an expert with a knife, Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), a bible-thumping, tomahawk- and axe-slinging tracker, Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Mexican outlaw on the run, and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), a young Comanche warrior seeking his own road in life.

For starters, our 7 is a little more politically correct with a black, Asian, Mexican, and Native American character. Some reviewers had more issues with that issue than I did (I had no issue with it). The most essential feature of the group? Simple. Do you like them? ‘Magnificent’ does its best to bring this group to life. Some of the high points are the 7 sitting around a table, joking, drinking and bonding. Not surprisingly, it is some of the movie’s best moments. The quiet moments. The build-up to battle. The realization that all of them might die. A highlight has Hawke’s Goodnight and Garcia-Rulfo’s Vasquez talking about their fathers, both who fought at the Alamo on opposing sides. Goodnight laughs “I sense we are bonding.” The movie needed more of those moments.

That becomes the biggest issue for me. The 2016 ‘7’ runs 133 minutes, five minutes longer than the 1960 ‘7.’ Without adding too much to the story, it is longer but manages to characterize our heroes far, far less. That’s disappointing. The recruitment is quick without much development, and then the 7 are off and riding. It’s slow-moving at times but not in ways you’d want it as we get to meet our seven eclectic anti-heroes. That lack of characterization is the movie’s biggest wasted opportunity. The 1960 ‘7’ is a classic because in lightning-quick snippets we do get to know the Seven. We see what drives them in a changing world, that for a change, they’re doing something good and right, odds and danger be damned. Here? That’s missing. We get some individual reasoning from character to character, but not for all. For some, it feels like something to do.

So what’s the verdict solely on our 7 as characters? Disappointingly, Washington is underused/misused. He’s cool. He’s a badass, but too often, it feels like he gets lost in the shuffle of the ensemble. The same for Pratt’s Faraday. A confident gambling gunfighter who’s always ready with a one-liner seems like a gimme for the very talented Pratt…but there’s not much more to the part. Why exactly does he go along? What’s his reasoning? Hawke and Lee come off best as partners Goodnight and Rocks. Their friendship feels genuine. Wishful thinking, but I’d love a prequel there. D’Onofrio hams it up but is solid, Sensmeier is an underutilized but cool presence, as is Garcia-Ruflo as Vasquz, sadly the least developed of the 7. So much potential, but rarely does it add up.

For me then, the blame comes down to the script from Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) and Richard Wenk. And as always, who knows how much of their finished script made the movie with changes, cuts and editing. It’s a movie that is missing something. We kinda get to know the characters, but not always what drives them, their motivation. Instead, the 7 become cool and stylish — oh, look, Chris Pratt spinning six-shooters! — rather than flesh and blood characters. We’re still rooting for them, but more as actors than characters. It’s impossible not to compare the two, especially when the bar was set so high with the 1960 version.

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Who else to look for? Sarsgaard is clearly having some fun as Bogue, the sneering, intimidating and cutthroat villain. Pretty straightforward villain character, a refreshing change from kinda bad villains. Bennett is very good with a character that isn’t given much to do, but I thought she was excellent. She also wears lots of low-cut, revealing shirts. Coincidence I figure, right? Also look for Luke Grimes as Teddy Q, the most visible townsperson, Matt Bomer as Bennett’s husband, Jonathan Joss as Bogue’s Indian warrior enforcer, Cam Gigandet as McCann, a Bogue deputy, and Mark Ashworth as Rose Creek’s Preacher.

Ready for a review-changing 180 degree turn? It might seem like I didn’t like the 2016 version at all. FALSE. I liked it a lot! It’s just my reasons are different. My biggest hope for this remake was entertainment value. Is it fun? Do I enjoy it? I’m not looking for it to live up to the original. I like award season, but mostly, movies are fun for me. This action-heavy western was a hell of a lot of fun. I wish there was more of a balance among the action, story and characters, but even judging ‘Magnificent’ solely on its action setting, it’s a win.

A PG-13 flick, ‘Magnificent’ racks up an impressive body count, but nothing gets too graphic. There’s some cool, often startling violence sprinkled early before we see what Sam and Co. are capable of as they ride into Rose Creek to tangle with the “deputies” Bogue left behind to watch the town. We get some training and planning sequences as a follow-up, all building to the epic finale as Bogue’s army of gunmen descend on the town. I didn’t time it, but the entire sequence must run 25 minutes. It…is…a…doozy. No spoilers but the 7 do take casualties once the bullets start flying. It’s a chaotic, frenetic, but most importantly, well-choreographed action sequence. I always felt like I had a read on where everyone was, what’s going on, what’s it all building too. Fuqua clearly knows action, and he doesn’t disappoint.

Yeah, there’s flaws. If the movie had picked a different name, maybe I don’t hold it to high standard, or at least, high expectations. It succeeds best as an action western. A tighter story, better developed characters would have gone a long way, but what’s there is pretty good, just not great. I was entertained throughout and easily recommend it. Also worth mentioning — but again, no spoilers — is stay for the opening parts of the credits. Fans of the 1960 version shall not be disappointed. Overall, I hope folks go out and see this western. The genre has become a cheap, straight-to-DVD/BluRay market unfortunately. Even if ‘Magnificent’ absolutely sucked (which it didn’t), it would have been fun just to see a well-made western in theaters. Hopefully, there’s more coming down the road.

Definitely worth seeing, especially for action fans. Love to hear what other viewers think. Who was your favorite of the 7? Were you surprised at the ending? Did you like the nods to the original?

The Magnificent Seven (2016): ***/****

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Cannon for Cordoba

cannoncoverI have three movie genres I claim as my favorites; westerns, war movies and heist flicks. Westerns are my favorites pretty much across the board, but there’s a unifier among the trio, a sub-genre of sorts that stretches across countless bigger genres. What is it exactly? A little thing I call ‘Men on a Mission’ movies. Stick around, and you’ll see plenty of them. Today’s entry? From 1970, Cannon for Cordoba.

It’s 1912 in the midst of the Mexican Revolution and U.S. Army General John “Black Jack” Pershing (John Russell) has been tasked with defending the U.S.-Mexico border. Bandits and revolutionaries are raiding across the border, including one power-hungry “general,” Hector Cordoba (Raf Vallone). Cordoba has stolen six heavy artillery pieces from Pershing’s forces and retreated to his mountaintop fortress deep into the Mexican desert. With no other options available, Pershing is forced to take desperate measures. He tasks one of his officers, Captain Rod Douglas (George Peppard), to assemble a small team of men, ride into Mexico, infiltrate the fortress, destroy the cannon and hopefully bring Cordoba out alive. Simple, right?

It took me years to track this western down, first watching it via rental on Amazon, and this time via MGM-HD on TV. ‘Cannon’ follows the men-on-a-mission formula to a T. Introduce your leader, give him an impossible mission, let him assemble his team, and light the fuse to the mission hijinks. ‘Cannon’ has touches of The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, The Professionals, The Guns of Navarone and plenty others. It isn’t the most original idea, but it’s a lot of fun.

From director Paul Wendkos, ‘Cannon’ came along at one of my favorite times in westerns, the late 1960s, early 1970s. Influenced by spaghetti westerns, the American westerns became more violent, dirtier, sweatier, and far-more cynical. There aren’t good guys so much as less bad guys. Filming locations in Spain are gorgeous for the sun-baked mission, and Elmer Bernstein turns in a solid score with some unique touches. Still, his signature notes are quite noticeable.

Who better to lead our team here than George Peppard, future star of TV’s The A-Team? No one. That’s who! Even chomping on a cigar, Peppard’s Douglas is your typical anti-hero, smug, capable, dangerous and intensely focused on pulling off the suicide mission. His team includes the always-welcome Don Gordon as Jackson, his right-hand man who’d like to exact some revenge on Douglas, Pete Duel as Andy, the amiable, capable, guitar-toting killer, Nico Minardos as Pete, the Greek immigrant and specialist with explosives and mechanics, and Gabrielle Tinti as Lt. Gutierrez, a Mexican officer tasked with bringing Cordoba in. There’s also Giovanni Ralli as Leonora, a beautiful Mexican woman seeking revenge against Cordoba. A bit underdeveloped in terms of character to say the least, but a cool, eclectic group.

Not given much to do other than sneer and be a stereotypical Mexican bandit/general, Vallone is nonetheless a welcome addition to the cast, even if it is just as an intimidating presence. He gets a stock character out of the Mexican Revolution genre/canon, Hans Meyer as a sadistic Swedish officer, Svedborg, working for Cordoba, while spaghetti western regular Aldo Sambrell gets a decent-sized part as Ortega, a sergeant in Cordoba’s forces.

‘Cannon’ isn’t a hugely action-packed western, but when it’s there, it’s good. Cordoba’s opening raid to steal the artillery is a good scene-setter, and a running firefight at a ruined church about halfway through is pretty cool as well. The highlight though is not surprisingly the raid on Cordoba’s well-guarded mountaintop fortress. When the explosions set off the guns start firing, things get pretty chaotic. Lots of action, some cool camera angles, and plenty of wholesome carnage.

This is a movie that’s heavily flawed and is too slow for its own good at times. I would have liked even a little more characterization among Douglas’ team but also Cordoba. Still, it’s a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it just as much on second viewing. Worth seeking out for sure. YouTube has several “full movies” available, but they’re cut versions. The full version runs 104 minutes.

Cannon for Cordoba (1970): ***/****

The Appaloosa (1966)

the_appaloosa66One of the original methods actors –if not the original method actor – Marlon Brando did it all in his career. His acting was often powerful, intriguing, fun to watch, and at other times, downright weird and featuring too much mumbling. While they aren’t remembered as some of his great films, Brando did three westerns, One-Eyed Jacks, The Missouri Breaks, and today’s review, 1966’s The Appaloosa.

Matt Fletcher (Brando) is a buffalo hunter returning home riding from Mexico and crossing the border into Texas. In a quiet border town, he’s accosted by Chuy Medina (John Saxon), a powerful bandit, for something that wasn’t his fault. He continues on his way, reuniting up the trail with his half-brother, Paco (Rafael Campos). With Matt’s speckled appaloosa pony, he intends to start a horse ranch and with Paco’s help, he knows he can do it…until Medina intervenes again. The bandit steals the appaloosa and retreats into Mexico where he’s protected by his many pistoleros. Paco tells Matt to forget about the horse, but Fletcher is having none of it. He intends to bring his horse back one way or another.

It’s harder and harder for me to track down quality 1960’s westerns that I haven’t seen before. When ‘Appaloosa’ popped up on Encore Westerns, I had to jump. I’m glad I did, but what a weird little western! Released in 1966, this western came along a time when the entire western genre was a-changing. Old-fashioned westerns were on the way out, and more violent entries like the spaghetti westerns were on the way in. Bleak, dreary revisionist westerns were still a ways down the road. Where does ‘Appaloosa’ fall? Oddly enough, right in the middle.

From director Sidney J. Furie, ‘Appaloosa’ ends up being an artsy, minimalist, beautifully shot, cynical and sinister little western. I didn’t love it overall, but there’s a ton to recommend. For starters, the look of the film. Furie and cinematographer Russell Metty do some impressive work with the camera. The extreme use of close-ups reflects spaghetti westerns as conversations are often handled from eye-to-eye. The composition is interesting. The camera shoots through objects, at odd angles, from low angles and is rarely just straight-on. Without going into horrifically specific detail of shot-to-shot analysis, I can say that the visual look of the film is a huge positive. It’s a cool movie to watch.

The most traditional aspect of ‘Appaloosa’ is the main character, Brando’s Fletcher, a buffalo hunter and a drifter. What isn’t traditional? Brando’s always-unique spin on the character. The western hero doesn’t always have high-arcing, high-reaching goals. He wants his land, wants his wife/family to be safe, to right a wrong. It’s simple, straightforward stuff. That’s all Fletcher wants; his horse back so he can start a new life. But…it’s Brando so Fletcher is quiet, sinister, intimidating, a wild card from beginning to end. He also shows off a pretty decent accent that could have been painful to watch, but it works.

As his opposition, Saxon is excellent as Chuy Medina. It isn’t a stereotypical villain. Sure, he’s one nasty dude, but it’s not big and bad and blustering. Saxon’s Chuy is equally intimidating and menacing, especially when it comes to his woman, Trini (Anjanette Comer), who he bought years ago and is beginning to beat. In Fletcher, both individuals see potential, one for danger, one for help. Campos is solid as Fletcher’s brother and friend with Miriam Colon as Paco’s wife. Also look for Emilio Fernandez as Chuy’s enforcer and right-hand man, Lazaro, and Alex Montoya as another pistolero, Squint Eye. Frank Silvera is excellent in a smaller part as Ramos, a sheep and goat-herder who crosses paths with Fletcher.

Filmed in California and Arizona, ‘Appaloosa’ has an isolated, almost other-worldly look to it. This is a less-populated west than we’re used to. It’s beautiful as the story bounces back and forth between “Mexico” and “Texas.” The musical score is fairly traditional but solid and used in positive fashion. It disappears for the most intense scenes as the on-screen action speaks for itself. The ending? A little disappointing, a little too traditional, but an underrated western overall.

Worth checking out, especially for Brando, Saxon and the generally non-traditional everything going on.

The Appaloosa (1966): ***/****

Red Sun

red_sun_movieposterThere are spaghetti westerns and then there are…well, impersonators, knock-offs, and quasi-spaghetti westerns. They have the feel and look, but they’re directed by an American director, or boast a more international cast, often with a musical score that’s a blatant ripoff of Ennio Morricone’s memorable scores. One of the best quasi spaghettis? Check out 1971’s Red Sun.

A gang of bandits led by Link (Charles Bronson) and Gauche (Alain Delon) pulls off a bloody but highly lucrative bank robbery that nets over $400,000. They’re surprised to find the Japanese ambassador and two samurai on-board, traveling across the country to Washington. Gauche has a plan though. He kills one of the samurai and steals a gold-inlaid sword bound for the President, and also double-crosses Link, leaving him for dead. One of the samurai, Kuroda (Toshiro Mifune), is tasked with tracking Gauche down and retrieving the sword and doing it in just 7 days. His unwilling guide? A not-so-dead Link, not much worse for wear, and looking for revenge and his share of the take. Can the unlikely duo work together? Who will get to Gauche first?

It has been years since I watched this western with French-Italian-Spanish backing so….a quasi-spaghetti. I once watched it on a Spanish channel just trying to decipher what was going on with my sorta college level Spanish-speaking ability. The best part? During a recent airing, TCM showed the full cut as near as I can tell at 112 minutes. No significant edits that I’ve read about thankfully! From director Terence Young (director of 3 Sean Connery James Bond flicks), ‘Sun’ isn’t on-par with the classic spaghetti westerns by any means, but the cast is very cool and it’s entertaining from beginning to end.

Doing the western variation on the buddy cop genre, ‘Sun’ pairs Bronson and Mifune, and who reaps the benefits? THE AUDIENCE! These are two of the biggest action stars ever working together and clearly having a ball. Bronson is most often associated as the stoic vigilante in Death Wish (and its sequels), but he’s an underrated all-around actor. When given the chance, he’s got some great comedic timing. Here, he’s the joker to Mifune’s straight man samurai. Their chemistry is impeccable from beginning to end. Unlikely allies at first, they come to respect each other, if not become friends as they trail Gauche.

The nerdy trivia here dawned on me about halfway through the flick. Mifune starred in the original Seven Samurai while Bronson starred in its American remake, The Magnificent Seven. Pretty cool, huh? ‘Sun’ ends up being a revenge-inspired, buddy cop road story, and that’s a good thing. There’s some solid, blood-splattered action, but I thought the most memorable scenes were Link and Kuroda on the trail, talking at their camp, working together to dispatch nameless bandits. Mifune quietly steals the show as the honor-bound samurai so desperately trying to live up to his personal code. In a cool twist, it’s the changing times in Japan that has the samurai worried about the future, not the dying west and the gunslinger. Either way, an excellent pairing at the top.

Making what amounts to an extended cameo, Delon sneers and betrays and double-crosses basically anyone/everyone he can as the treacherous Gauche. He’s there for the opening robbery, makes a quick appearance in the middle and reappears late to settle everything. It’s Alain Delon so we’re good. Ursula Andress sex kittens it up as Cristina, Gauche’s prostitute girlfriend who is just as treacherous as her boyfriend. She’s wearing slinky clothes, goes topless to seduce Link, and certainly adds an international flavor to the proceedings. French beauty Capucine plays Pepita, the owner/madam of a whorehouse, while Anthony Dawson is one of Gauche’s bandits. No one else is clearly identified among the gang unfortunately. Just cannon fodder for betrayals and Comanches!

Nothing to rewrite the genre here, but a good, old-fashioned romp. The action is actually pretty bloody — I guess samurai swords do lean that way — and the shootouts certainly pack up an impressive body count. Maurice Jarre‘s soundtrack is okay but nothing too memorable — listen HERE — with a too jaunty, light theme at times. Some familiar Spanish locations provide the backdrop, but for the most part it’s unfamiliar location shooting. I will say, this must be the cloudiest spaghetti western I can think of. Not much sun on display here!

A fun, entertaining quasi-spaghetti with excellent parts for its two leads.

Red Sun (1971): ***/****