The Crop: Seven Samurai
The Studio: The Weinstein Company
The Director: Justin Chadwick or Wayne Kramer (Rumored)
The Writer: John Fusco
The Cast: Zhang Ziyi (In talks)
The Premise: A modern day retelling of Seven Samurai set in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, only with a multicultural mix of mercenaries taking the place of the samurai. Yet they’re gonna call it Seven Samurai anyway.
The Context: Fundamentally, there is nothing scandalous about remaking Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai; perhaps we might’ve all raised a mighty hue and cry had we been around when John Sturges was prepping The Magnificent Seven in 1959, but, by now, it is cinematic boilerplate. Aside from Sturges’s wonderful-in-its-own-right rendition, the Kurosawa classic has been explicitly reconfigured as a science-fiction B movie (Battle Beyond the Stars) and as an animated epic featuring insects (A Bug’s Life). Meanwhile, the basic idea of hired guns throwing down for the defenseless (whilst training them to defend themselves) has resurfaced more times than I care to remember; it’s been parodied in Three Amigos, and urbanized in The Annihilators (and, to an extent, Death Wish 3). It’s just a shopworn means to an often entertaining end.
And these films, no matter how awful, have never reflected poorly on Seven Samurai because they’ve never had the chutzpah to call themselves Seven Samurai. I mean, why bother? It’s the story that’s indelible for a majority of American audiences, not the title.
It would take a peculiar mixture of hubris, impiety, temerity, profligacy and flat-out stupidity to venture a literal remake Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai – which is why no one was surprised when Harvey Weinstein announced his intent to do just that back in 2002 (with the ever wayward MGM tacked on for co-financing purposes). "Not only is The Seven Samurai (sic) one of my favorite movies of all time, but it is the mother of all ‘guys on a mission’ movies," boasted Harvey in a monumentally bullshit defense. The Harvey-to-English translation: "The Seven Samurai is good, but it’s too fucking long. If I were running Janus back in ’56, I would’ve lost an hour and dubbed it into English with the biggest stars working today! Thornton, Danes, Crudup, that bitch who’s married to Will Smith… one phone call, and they’re in a recording studio tomorrow spittin’ Stoppard! And don’t tell me I don’t know from bloat! I got Cinema Paradiso the Oscar! 207 minutes for swordfightin’ flick? Memo to Akira-san or whatever the fuck they call you over there: this ain’t Exodus, and you ain’t Otto Preminger!"
For a good four years, Weinstein’s Seven Samurai languished in development hell while the bombastic producer struggled to extricate himself from Disney (and Miramax); during this time, I figured the remake would get lost somewhere in transition and ultimately consigned to the big scrap heap of near-miss debacles like Burton’s Superman… and Ratner’s Superman… and J.J. Abrams’s Superman… and Singer’s Logan’s Run. But Harvey Weinstein is not the kind of guy to purchase the rights to something just for hording purposes. Actually, he is, but, in this instance, I guess he couldn’t help himself; it’s not often you get the opportunity to ravage one of the ten most critically acclaimed movies of all time. Once The Weinstein Company was on semi-solid ground, he hired Young Guns writer John Fusco, inked a three-picture deal with Zhang Ziyi and let it be known that George Clooney was his desired lead.
The Script: He’ll be settling for Skeet Ulrich.
The awful truth about Fusco’s Seven Samurai screenplay is that it isn’t awful enough. It’s a competent B action script that would’ve been right at home in the 1980s alongside Uncommon Valor or The Delta Force, in that you could conceivably find yourself emotionally invested in the story provided you aren’t constantly recalling, say, The Dirty Dozen or The Great Escape. If the Weinsteins land Wayne Kramer and change the title to something that doesn’t reference The Godfather of Japanese cinema, this could be slightly above-average trash.
While the use of Kurosawa’s title will undoubtedly cause plenty of controversy prior to the release, it could very well be more of a hindrance than a help; Americans may only be cursorily familiar with the original film, but, thanks to Richard Chamberlain and Tom Cruise, they know damn well what a samurai is (or, at least, what one looks like). Show them a trailer bursting with gunplay in the mountains of Southeast Asia (with nary a sword in sight), and the title Seven Samurai isn’t going to make a whole lot of sense to them.
And it shouldn’t, even on a subconscious level. Samurai are indigenous to Japan, not fucking Thailand. And while Fusco’s script doesn’t try to argue otherwise, it does trade on a cultural ignorance that is, sadly, very indigenous to America. "Japanese, Korean, Chinese… who can tell the difference!?!? They all do the fancy fightin’!"
In Fusco’s script, the Kambei character is named Charlie, and he’s an American ex-pat equipped with just enough of a conscience to take on a contract to defend a group of non-violent rice and barley farmers from the ruthless warlord El Guapo. I’m sorry, that’s Khun Lao. And Khun Lao is a big thumbtack in their tuchus because he wants them to grow poppies in order to ramp up his opium production. Not a bad bargain, right? Well, where Khun Lao gets a tad unreasonable is that he insists on killing one child for every poppy that fails to blossom. It’s this little detail that compels the lovely and mysterious Tasanee (and two other misfit villagers) to seek help from independent liquidators like Charlie.
But, being rice and barley farmers from the impoverished Tukar ("unchanged for three centuries", by the way), they’re a little light on reward money. When Charlie outright rejects their cobbled-together $12,000, they offer him gold in the form of the village’s twenty-foot statue of Buddha (imagine the rotten karma you’d incur from boiling that fucker down). Throw in Tasanee working the flattery angle, and Charlie reluctantly agrees to round up a ragtag group of professional killers – not one of whom is Japanese.
The only invoking of bushido comes courtesy of a reckless Australian kid named Billy Boy – who, just in case you’re not sure which character he’s representing, sports a topknot and brandishes souvenired dogtags bearing the moniker "Kikuchiyo". But this is all so ridiculously shoehorned into the script that it could be excised in a matter of minutes without undermining the narrative or, god forbid, theme. It’s only there because Harvey owns the rights to the title, and he’s going to get his goddamn money’s worth.
The other five mercenaries are a veritable rainbow coalition of death: Ellis is formerly of the South African 32nd Buffalo Batallion; Tipton is a British scrounger; Raj is "a legendary Gurkha"; Sammy an unstoppable Thai fighting machine; and Antoine is a daredevil Jamaican pilot (work for Doug E. Doug!). It’s a strange, strained assortment, but at least they’re not as tediously quirky as Scott Rosenberg’s Dirty Dozen (now being rewritten by Zak Penn).
Fusco’s one major deviation from Kurosawa’s film – aside from a feisty, exotic femme who can fend for herself! – is that the villagers are steadfastly non-violent, and must therefore be convinced to cast off the shackles of pacifism and do some dirt. That they do so fairly quickly – funny how watching your family members slaughtered makes you hungry for a little get-back – renders the whole twist completely useless. But at least Fusco’s trying to do something halfway original.
In terms of weaponry, the mercs are forced to use outmoded weaponry stashed away by the villagers when their sole means of transportation, Antoine’s plane, gets torched. Gun nuts may get off on knowing that these vintage firearms range from Gerbruder Merkel Double Rifles, a Type 92 Lewis machine gun and a Mauser Gewehr. Once Charlie gets the villagers to consent to killin’, they also add darts and arrows and I’m boring myself, too.
Oddly, the nice thing about Fusco’s screenplay is that it is familiar; it goes exactly where you expect it to go, but does so with as much charm as Young Guns – which may be damning with faint praise, but, hell, even competently crafted trash is at a premium nowadays. It follows the Seven Samurai beat structure to a tee, only at a much faster clip (the November 2006 draft runs a manageable 124 pages). I wasn’t thrilled to find the finale taking place in a torrential downpour as in Kurosawa’s original, but it’s not like Seven Samurai holds the copyright on bad weather climaxes (even though there is no topping Kurosawa’s rain-swept final battle).
Why It Could Be Good: They hire Wayne Kramer, whose participation is contingent on not making a film titled Seven Samurai.
Why It Will Suck: Harvey won’t relent, and they’ll wind up hiring a young commercial director desperate to segue into features pre-strike – one who’s never seen Seven Samurai.