There are some films you go to, where your expectation is that they will be adequate. Magnificent Seven is overdue a decent remake, and this was a film I could see with my daughter. I didn’t expect it to have the same impact watching the original did for a 7 years old, but it looked like a decent way to spend a couple of hours.
The casting is pretty solid – Washington does the role of leader solidly, Pratt does his amiable rogue schtick effectively and Ethan Hawke is probably the best of the bunch as the ex Confederate sharp shooter. Revisiting Westerns is problematic with modern sensibilities, particularly for a film that just wants to get on with the entertainment. It opts to deal with the racial issues of the time by having diversity in the seven (and of course they all come to have respect for each other through combat). But you get the sense it is not really at ease confronting these and quickly moves on.
As for the entertainment aspect, it handles that effectively. There are some moments of comedy, some cool deaths, and fast paced action scenes. It makes a change from car chases. But it lacks any of the charm of the original, and ultimately you don’t care about about the villagers or the cowboys. The sense of sacrifice and redemption that was central to the original is lacking, almost as if they’re embarrassed by it, and it isn’t replaced by anything.
Tarantino has a lot in common with Martin Amis I feel. Both were lauded for stylistic panache early in their career, they have their devotees, and their detractors, not least being accusations of sexism (they are both very ‘male’ artists). Both have seen a gradual decline in popularity. For Amis this decline reached its nadir with Lionel Asbo. It wasn’t that the book incited controversy but far worse, apathy. Finally people, even fans who had stuck with him decided this was one retreat to the usual themes too many.
The Hateful Eight was beginning to look like Tarantino’s Lionel Asbo moment. The response from many critics and erstwhile fans was “a Tarantino film too far”. A collective shoulder shrug seemed to greet its release. So I wasn’t expecting much. But Hateful Eight is no Lionel Asbo. Sure, many of the Tarantino trademarks are in evidence: cinematic in-jokes, lengthy dialogue, the stock actors (Jackson, Roth, Russell), a love of cartoonish violence. But these are tools Tarantino still knows how to deploy successfully, not crutches he has resorted to when he has become devoid of ideas.
Hateful Eight can be seen as belonging to the new wave of beautifully shot Westerns – Slow West, Salvation, Bone Tomahawk. Of course with Tarantino it also has references to many other genres. The Thing, Carrie and Soldier Blue all resonate through it. Much has been made of its length, with many decrying it boring, but there is sufficient action and intrigue in this tale of 9 strangers trapped in a mountain cabin. The deaths come along pretty quickly, and the violence is amongst the most extreme, but also the most wildly comical that Tarantino has put on film. Jennifer Jason Leigh is superb, offering the best gags, but also a captivating presence when she is out of focus and off centre.
Perhaps Amis is the wrong comparison, in this week, Bowie might be more appropriate. The Hateful Eight is maybe no Low, but it is no Tonight either. Maybe it’s a Scary Monsters, and that is high praise.