Return of the 'Seven' Television: A new series takes a shot at a classic Western.

January 03, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

"The Magnificent Seven" isn't all that magnificent, but it'll do in a pinch.

A faithful retooling of the 1960 Western that was itself a retooling of the 1954 Japanese film "The Seven Samurai," it's the story of seven gunslingers hired by a desperate village to protect them from banditos.

Thirty-eight years ago, the victims were a group of Mexican farmers; today, it's a settlement of Seminole Indians and freed slaves at the mercy of Confederate guerrillas unwilling to admit the Civil War is over.

Convinced the tribe is hiding a gold stash somewhere, Col. Anderson (Kurtwood Smith), whose mind clearly snapped at Appomattox, gives them one week to produce it, or suffer the consequences -- in this case, a cannon bombardment of their largely unarmed village.

Since they can't hand over gold reserves that don't exist, the tribal chief heads into town to find a savior. He turns up in the form of the black-clad Chris Larrabee (Michael Biehn), who's just proved his marksmanship -- as well as his humanity -- by saving a black man from a lynching.

Although the chief and his people have no money to hire anyone, beyond a gold trinket worth $35, Chris agrees to come to their rescue. Even better, he scrapes up six more recruits, including the man he just saved (Rick Worthy) and the crack shot who helped save him (Eric Close). They're joined by a rogue ladies' man (Dale Midkiff), a con man who's also after the supposed gold (Anthony Starke), an ex-priest (Ron Perlman) and an eager young Easterner (Andrew Kavoit) who thinks shooting people is one glamorous way to make a living.

Guns are drawn, and the good guys have at the bad guys. Who wins? Hint: the show is slated for a six-episode run and won't be changing its name to "The Rotten-to-the-Core Regiment."

There's not a thing original about tonight's two-hour premiere. In fact, half the fun is watching for similarities to the movie. Chris is the only returning character from the original film, where he was played by Yul Brynner. But if the names are different, the characters are the same. There's the laconic, philosophical gunslinger who emerges as second-in-command (Steve McQueen there, Close here), the operator who'll do anything for a fast buck (Brad Dexter there, Starke here), the kid who's got more enthusiasm than brains (Horst Buchholz there, Kavoit here).

There's even some shared dialogue, as when one of the Seven wisecracks that the money the village is offering him wouldn't pay for his bullets.

More telling, however, is the main difference. In the 1960 film, the Mexican bandits (led by Eli Wallach, in his best south-of-the-border accent) weren't entirely bad, and that made the movie resonate a lot longer.

True, he and his band robbed and extorted for a living, but they did it because they were hungry, not greedy. The movie even gave them a chance for honor, when they captured the Seven and allowed them to go free. In fact, when the Seven returned to kill the bandits, it became an open question who were the better guys and who were the worse guys.

No such ambiguity here, however. These guerrilla Confederates are bad men, and they show absolutely no mercy. Nobody's going to worry when they die.

The new crop of actors do a fine job, particularly Biehn, who wears his black far more comfortably than Brynner. And it's always a pleasure to see a Western on the prime-time schedule.

However, that lack of ambiguity, that determination to see things without any shades of gray, makes the TV series not a classic but just a few enjoyable hours on a Saturday night.

Pub Date: 1/03/98

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