While there have been some really good re-imaginings of classic westerns (3:10 To Yuma and True Grit for example), this one only served to remind me how far the genre has matured and moved on in the decades. From Sergio Leone, to Unforgiven, to Open Range, right through to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford; and even leftfield examples like this year's Bone Tomahawk and Tarantino's dialogue driven ventures into the genre; modern audiences can expect more than the kind of western clichés that inspired the likes of Blazing Saddles.
Unfortunately, for me at least, that's just the kind of western this is. I thought Antoine Fuqua's spirited but soulless re-imagination of a timeless story was extremely mediocre and a step backwards for the genre. The simple structure isn't necessarily the problem if he was going all out to make a proper violent gunslinging actioner with colourful engaging characters; yet even here I found the movie wanting. The tone was uncertain; feeling at times like a comedy, yet without humour. It is violent and has a high body count, yet it's also bloodless and somewhat unexciting. It has decent actors, yet their characters aren't developed. Production values are high, yet it doesn't ever feel authentic. It all feels redolent and half baked.
Denzel and Chris Pratt are a guaranteed value for money and they are absolutely the standouts (the latter being the most fun while the former plays it straight), and Ethan Hawke really makes the most of what little character development is afforded. Vincent D'onofrio's character (apparently a favourite for some) didn't work for me at all, and as for the rest? In their (admittedly laudable) efforts to ensure diversity they forgot to give the Mexican, Asian and Native American characters any, well, character. Indeed, the way in which we meet each of the Seven is rushed and unimaginative (each could have had an interesting or exciting establishing scene for example). But it amounts to just "wanna join our group? Yep. Great! Next". Motivations are as absent as the characters' backgrounds or personalities. As a result there is no chemistry (or memorable interaction of any kind) between the seven protagonists. That's a problem. Peter Sarsgaard's villain- while played very well- is nothing more than a moustache twirling cliché. There is none of the depth or conflict of characters like Gian Maria Volonte's Indio or Russell Crowe's Ben Wade. Everything just comes straight off the peg.
The gunfights are fair, but not in the slightest bit authentic and the final act is like something out of The A-Team (via Blazing Saddles) and the conclusion that sees our remaining heroes literally ride off into the sunset. Some of the early encounters were quite cool (the saloon scene was a personal highlight), and Chris Pratt's Josh Faraday is a gamble that paid off: he has just the right amount of menace and playfulness to make the character stand out.
Fun in parts then, on the whole there's very little to define this within the Western- or action- genres. Disappointing.