Film Review: Good western action with some limitations

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Another Hollywood remake!? Is there no end to this madness? When will it cease to be and we will get original productions for once? ARE THERE NO MORE FRESH CONCEPTS?! …okay. That was said mostly in jest but to be truthful, there have been way more remakes than I can count in the last few years. Some have been glorious updates of ancient, somewhat racist or otherwise offensive material (like The Jungle Book) or you have a downright awful bastardization of a passable children’s film (2015’s Annie). This one is a remake of a 1960s western starring the biggest names of the time like Yul Brynner and Charles Bronson. This one sports an all-star cast as well… but the question is: does it measure up and equal to a great film?

This is basically a western/revenge/action/thriller. The plot starts off with a villainous land baron known as Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) who has taken over a small town and laid waste to several of its inhabitants to send a vicious message to the rest of the population. Emma (Haley Bennett), a young lady whose husband was shot and killed during the incident, soon seeks out help from a warrant officer named Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) to assemble a team and take back their town from Bogue and his ruthless gang. Chisolm soon finds and recruits a gambler named Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), a legendary gunman named Goodnight (Ethan Hawke) along with his associate, Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), a Mexican outlaw named Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a tracker named Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio) and finally a Comanche native known as Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). High-octane action ensues.

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The film is quite enjoyable overall I would say with several glaring flaws throughout. A big one that I was warned about and noticed myself was lack of character development. I’m not talking about everyone because obviously some of the characters were more in-depth than others but for a film to sport seven heroes, not all of them had a lot of definable characteristics and in fact some of them were paper-thin. That was a hard pill to swallow although more understandable due to the fact that there were so many characters. I have never seen the original film so I don’t know if it’s pulled off in a more successful way in that film but in this one, it is not quite there. If I could think of any other flaws, it might be the uneven pacing at times. The introductions of every character takes a very long time and I never felt like the film was truly progressing anywhere until we got to the meat of the plot and the big action scenes, especially the grand finale. The middle of the film sags a little bit too but at the same time it felt necessary to the plot.

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Now what did I enjoy about the movie? Well, the acting across the board was pretty solid. Denzel Washington can play these lead tough guy roles in his sleep but he always shows a vulnerability in an effortless way that adds so much to his character. He does it again here and pulls off another great dramatic performance. Chris Pratt continues his streak of good performances in big-budget action movies but I was honestly surprised that his character wasn’t as developed as I had hoped. Still, he had most of the funny scenes and he handled that and the serious stuff with aplomb. Ethan Hawke was another very strong performer here and his character had a lot of pathos as well. I loved his interactions with Byung-hun Lee and they had a nice little story with Hawke being the reluctantly legendary gunman and Lee his precision-perfect assassin. Honestly, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is almost invisible as a character and the performance didn’t do anything for me while D’Onofrio has a few funny lines and not much else. Still, D’Onofrio is the man so he does well with what he was given. Martin Sensmeier is a revelation here and it’s really cool that I first got to see him in one of the first films I reviewed on this site, Lilin’s Brood, which was a video-on-demand release. I even interviewed one of the directors! I can’t end this paragraph without mentioning Peter Sarsgaard as the villain. This is another actor I love and I enjoyed watching him play the bad guy. However, it’s another case of wanting more as I wanted more backstory on him and why he was so evil. We hear a lot about it and see examples but it’s still not as thoroughly explored as I would have enjoyed.

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The other high points of the movie are the action sequences. In fact, the reason the rating is higher than a three-star review (which is what I was thinking after watching the movie) is mostly because of the final 40 minutes or so which features the grand finale between our heroes and Bogue and his army. It’s an intense showdown with guns blazing, explosions, emotional scenes and a sense of despair that is somewhat lacking throughout the rest of the film. That whole ending sequence really caught me off-guard too with some of the fates of the characters. There is an earlier shootout sequence that is entertaining as well but the ending of the film in particular is a terrific way to go out. The humour is also nice to have in this film every once in a while to give it some levity but I can only wonder how the humour and the action would have been even better with some stronger character development.

All in all, it is a highly entertaining western remake with some solid performances and great action. Just don’t expect awesome writing or character depth and you’ll have a good time.

*** ½

 

Rating System:

* (Brutal; the worst rating)

** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)

*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)

**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)

***** (Flawless; a true achievement)