In Praise of Denzel Washington, The New John Wayne

It seems inconceivable that Denzel has never fronted a Western before 'The Magnificent Seven' - because he’s so well suited to the job.

Antoine Fuqua’s new remake of The Magnificent Seven is not a great Western, but it’s a damn fine one – and it’s got a great Western hero at its center, which is just as important. In fact, as he first emerges on horseback, through the heatwaves rippling above an expansive desert landscape, it seems inconceivable that Denzel Washington has never fronted a Western before, because he’s so well suited to the job. Resplendent in black from hat to boot, decked out in Fred Williamson’s facial hair, he steps into this world like he knows he belongs there, an old-fashioned and honorable man of action. He’s our John Wayne, and if The Magnificent Seven isn’t quite The Searchers or True Grit, well, it’s at least The Cowboys or Chisum.

Washington’s character even shares a surname with the latter; he stars as Sam Chisum, a “duly sworn warrant officer” who comes into the sights of a recent widow who appeals to his sense of honor. “I seek righteousness, as should we all,” she tells him. “But I’ll take revenge.” (The script is co-written by True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto, and what can I tell you, his reaching verbosity is somehow a good fit.) Later, when the campfire reflects off Washington’s slightly misty eyes after a compatriot mentions his sister, you know he’s getting at something personal, but in that moment (and a later, even more taciturn one with a preacher), you know he wouldn’t give away that backstory for all the tea.

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Anyway, the widow. Her town has been taken over by a slimy land baron, played by Peter Saarsgard, who’s not entirely convincing, but is up to something that works. His men briskly and brutally dispatch many of the townfolk, and he promises he’ll be back in three weeks to take what he wants, or kill everyone else. It would take an army to keep him and his men at bay, and that’s what the widow asks Chisum to put together.

He does. His posse – “quite a batch of strays,” as a deputy sneers – begins to feel a bit like a checklist (an Asian-American, a Native American, a Mexican-American, a cheerful sadist, a psychologically scarred Confederate sharpshooter, Vincent D’Onofrio doing a funny voice), but credit where it’s due: this is a film making a clear effort at diversity, in a genre not exactly noted for it. Each actor gets enough character beats to keep things moving, while Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk’s script slides in a bit of casual gentrification subtext, and a fair amount of implicit anti-capitalist messaging.

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And Fuqua is clearly having a ball. He hasn’t made a genuinely good movie since his last collaboration with Washington and Ethan Hawke, Training Day (I think we’ve found his skeleton key), but he’s also been working with some lousy scripts; here, he has clear affection for the genre, and executes his shoot-outs and set pieces with clarity and efficiency. The first big, get-naked-and-dance number finds him building the obligatory twitchy standoff for as long as is humanly possibly, milking every side-eye close-up for what seems its absolute maximum, and then going around the crew again, just for funsies. His compositions are striking and his flashes of style (like a bell-ringing prologue to the big climax) land on their feet.

Most importantly, he doesn’t shrink from the Western’s tropes; he leans into them, knows what he’s there to do, and what we’ve come to see. So there are drawdowns and poker games and bar brawls and campfires, and if he doesn’t put much of a fresh spin on them, hey, it’s still good to see them in a big movie again. And, as a side game, it’s fun to watch him continuing to figure out how to inventively reframe the eponymous septet – always, of course, with Mr. Washington dead center.

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Washington has had an odd career for the past decade or so, using his considerable dramatic gifts at the service of action pictures that sometimes play (Déjà Vu, Unstoppable) but are more often either aggressively stupid (The Equalizer, The Taking of Pelham 123) or aggressively forgettable (Safe House, 2 Guns). Forbes insists he’s one of our most overpaid actors, but their math is based entirely on his big paychecks, and less on his grosses – people go to Denzel Washington movies, because we like him and trust him, and we know he’s an actor who gets the job done, playing characters who do the same.

There’s not an actor alive who can give you the same goosebumps as this man does when he finally locks eyes with the villain and tells him who he is, or when he interrogates a bartender in that intense, scratchy-but-barely-audible-above-a-whisper voice that he does so well and then quick-draws the whole rotten place into oblivion; he sucks you in so handily that he doesn’t have to raise his volume. That’s magnetism – that’s a movie star. There aren’t many of them left, and even if it had nothing else to recommend, The Magnificent Seven would be worth seeing just to marvel at the magnitude of his presence.

The Magnificent Seven is out Friday.