Double Oscar-winner Denzel Washington and a motley band of gunslingers opened the Toronto film festival Thursday, blazing trails in a much-anticipated remake of the 1960 Western “The Magnificent Seven.”
The film festival, which runs through September 18, is the largest in North America and has become a launchpad for Oscar-conscious studios and distributors, attracting hundreds of filmmakers and actors to the red carpet in Canada’s largest city.
Nearly 400 feature and short films from 83 countries will be screened at the festival.
Director Antoine Fuqua’s film is a reimagining of the Western classic that starred Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson — which in turn was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese-language epic “Seven Samurai.”
In the latest version, Washington plays Sam Chisolm, a bounty hunter who leads his crew to liberate a Wild West town from the clutches of an evil industrialist played by Peter Sarsgaard (who also appears at the festival in “Jackie”) and his private army of henchmen.
While initially motivated by cash offered by townswoman Emma Cullen (played by Haley Bennett), these swashbucklers end up taking a principled stand against greed and hegemony to save the fledgling town.
Fuqua told AFP during post-production in April that he hoped to dispel a mythology of the American frontier propagated by Hollywood, that it was populated by ranchers, lawmen and outlaws battling for money or land on behalf of White America.
The real Wild West’s racial makeup was actually a melting pot of Europeans, Chinese, Mexicans, Native Americans and blacks.
“Westerns change for the times they’re in,” Fuqua told a press conference ahead of the gala screening of the film in Toronto.
“We made our film based on the world we live in right now,” he said. “If we were sticking to just one way of doing something, all Westerns would be all white guys looking like John Wayne.”
– Metaphor for today’s America –
The action-packed film also stars Chris Pratt as a card shark and explosives enthusiast, Ethan Hawke (also at the festival in “Maudie”) as a sharpshooter, Vincent D’Onofrio in the role of a tracker, and South Korea’s Lee Byung-hun as a knife-throwing assassin.
Washington and Fuqua have collaborated before, notably with Hawke on “Training Day,” which also premiered at the Toronto festival and went on to earn Washington a best actor Oscar in 2001 for his performance as a rogue cop in Los Angeles. (Washington earned his first Oscar in 1990 for his supporting role in the civil war drama “Glory.”)
The two also paired up in 2014 for Fuqua’s adaptation of the 1980s television series “The Equalizer,” about a loner who dispenses justice from the barrel of a gun. The film earned mediocre reviews and nearly US$200 million at the box office.
Pressed about the subtle racial complexity of the film in a time of racial tension in America, Fuqua quipped: “I just wanted to see Denzel Washington on a horse… that would be an event.”
More seriously, he added: “Denzel walks into a room, the room stops. Clint Eastwood walks into a room, the room stops. Is it because he’s a gunslinger or the color of his skin? We’ll let the audience decide.”
Toronto film festival co-director Piers Handling said of the film: “It’s an interesting metaphor for what’s going on in America right now.”
– Spotlight on politics –
This year’s Toronto film festival also shines a spotlight on American politics, youth radicalization, racism, feminism and alien arrivals.
Films being positioned for accolades include the new Denis Villeneuve sci-fi movie “Arrival,” and Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” about former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s enormous 2013 leak revealing the extent of government snooping on private data.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s performances as a jazz musician and an aspiring actress in the bewitching musical “La La Land,” which opened the Venice film festival, has also stirred up a frenzy.
“American Pastoral,” Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut looking back at an ideal family torn by the upheavals of the 1960s, is generating tremendous buzz, as is “Lion” — the true story of a boy separated from his family who goes searching for home 25 years on.