American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Rarely have so many charismatic actors been used in a film that feels quite as soulless as Antoine Fuqua’s update of “The Magnificent Seven.” It’s one of those projects that should work on paper. The cast is perfectly assembled, and I’ve actually been a bigger fan than most of Fuqua’s recent old-fashioned morality plays like “The Equalizer” and “Southpaw.” However, this effort, the opening night film of the Toronto International Film Festival, too often registers as hollow, an exercise in genre that has echoes of the John Sturges and Akira Kurosawa versions, but little of the charm of the former and none of the depth of the latter. The sheer talent of the cast here sometimes provides enough depth to get audience members to the climactic shoot-out, and there are a few definite MVPs in terms of ensemble, but it’s hard to envision this film having anywhere near the cinematic legacy of those that inspired it.
One of those MVPs is Peter Sarsgaard, as the fantastically-named Bartholomew Bogue, the villain of this version. Sarsgaard and Fuqua know to hold nothing back with their characterization of true evil. They practically give him a handlebar mustache to twirl. In the opening scene, after terrorizing the God-fearing people of Rose Creek, he burns their church to the ground, exiting it like the devil riding out of Hell. In fact, it’s too bad we don’t get more time with Sarsgaard in the center of the film because he understands how to embrace a villain.
On the other side of the moral coin, we meet Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), a bounty hunter hired by Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), one of the citizens of the aforementioned Rose Creek. Chisolm is a man of justice—introduced dressed all in black, riding a black horse. He is the square-jawed and silent type, which doesn’t allow Washington many opportunities to show his natural charisma or leadership abilities. He has a few good scenes of chemistry with his fellow stars, but Chisolm is too dull of a hero for an actor this talented and this typically enjoyable to watch.
Chisolm assembles, you guessed it, six men to help defend Rose Creek from Bogue and his minions. First, there’s the drunk Irishman Faraday, played with expected whimsy by a very good Chris Pratt. We also meet one of Chisolm’s old colleagues, the PTSD-plagued Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his right-hand man Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), who’s quick and vicious with a blade. Chisolm decides to let one of his bounties live and so the fifth “Magnificent” becomes Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). The group is filled out with a Native American named Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) and a possibly unstable gentleman named Jack (played by the king of the possibly unstable, Vincent D’Onofrio).