If you’ve never seen a Western before, Hollywood’s latest effort to revive the genre may divert and even entertain you. After all, Denzel Washington is good, as always, Chris Pratt has some funny lines, and all the superficial ingredients you’d expect are in place, from quick-draw action to swinging saloon doors. But you don’t have to know the 1960 movie with Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen or its source, Akira Kurosawa’s breathtaking The Seven Samurai, to know that something is missing.
The characters aren’t well-drawn. The politically correct presence of a heroic Mexican, a Native American, and an assertive woman add little to the proceedings. And the movie never effectively sells the story point that made the earlier films so compelling: why a bunch of outlaws and mercenaries would put their lives on the line for a town that finds itself in the grip of a bad, bad guy.
We’re told all of this: I just didn’t feel it. In fact, I didn’t feel anything for the characters. That’s the x factor that director Antoine Fuqua and credited writers Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto have missed by a country mile. Washington’s character is supposed to be something of an enigma; instead, he’s a cipher.
Even good actors like Ethan Hawke, who has a head start with a flamboyant name (Goodnight Robicheaux) and wardrobe, still has to make do with an underwritten role. Peter Sarsgaard may be an offbeat choice to play the heartless villain, but that doesn’t mean he was the right one; he’s rather dull and predictable. The only one who brings color and brio to his part is Vincent D’Onofrio, as the indescribably outlandish character called Jack Horne.
As if to admit that they haven’t done their job terribly well, the filmmakers tack on a finale (no spoiler here) that shows the headstones of the key characters who haven’t survived. Out of nowhere comes a piece of narration (by the film’s female heroine, Haley Bennett) saying, “They were…magnificent.” That’s the cue for Elmer Bernstein’s rousing theme from the 1960 movie, which has more energy and excitement than anything we’ve seen in the previous two hours.
What a shame, and what a waste.