I've lost track of the number of times Seven Samurai– itself a film that owes more than a little to John Ford's The Lost Patrol– has been remade across various media. At this point, Kurosawa's masterpiece is cultural DNA, something passed from generation to generation because it remains immensely useful and relevant, which makes it that much harder for any modern work that heavily references or adapts it to actually stand out. That's unfortunately the case with Rubicon, a cross media work from the brain of Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, who announced in 2011 that he would not only be directing, producing and writing this “Seven Samurai in Afghanistan” story, but also releasing it as a graphic novel through Archaia and– hey, why not– turning it into a videogame, too.
While McQuarrie's ambitious aims for Rubicon are hard not to notice, the story itself isn't as engaging as its source material or later adaptations like Magnificent Seven; part of that is of course due to the thrill of the story wearing off some six decades later, but there's also a distinct lack of stakes or tension, or at least in graphic novel form that's the case. Handling scripting duties is Mark Long, who had a marvelous debut last year with The Silence of Our Friends, an incredible, passionate story based on Long's own experiences as a child in Houston during one of the more turbulent moments of the civil rights movement that is more or less the opposite of Rubicon in every way imaginable. But like The Silence of Our Friends, Long has a co-plotter, and this time it's Dan Capel, better known as a member of Seal Team VI, who lends the work a healthy dose of authenticity which is apparent in the terminology and detailed setting. Whether it's a result of McQuarrie's input or through a lack of personal engagement, though, Long and Capel struggle to make the characters of Rubicon stand out, which is a huge problem when adapting a work as tense as Seven Samurai, where every sacrifice should hit with maximum impact.
But Rubicon's greatest weakness may actually be artist Mario Stilla, who has a good enough handle on detail and backgrounds but isn't capable of bringing that detail to characters, specifically in regards to expressions. Throughout Rubicon, characters seem to have a default expression of “stoic grimace,” which for all I know is realistic (except for the blocks of teeth, which turns everyone into some kind of human-whale hybrid), but doesn't exactly endear a reader to the story or its cast. Stilla also struggles to maintain consistent proportions, with panels often featuring characters with oddly placed eyes and noses or, worse, monstrous expanses of flesh where features should be. That serves to make the story extremely confusing when paired with Stilla's bland, interchangeable character designs; that flaw is clearest whenever the story's protagonist, Hector, shares a scene with the team's demolitions expert, who happens to look exactly like Hector, only with a different colored beard. Given that the bulk of Rubicon is set in the same Afghan village, which Hector and his men have decided to protect against the Taliban despite their certainty that it will ultimately be a suicide mission, expressiveness– not background detail– is of the utmost importance and Stilla is ill served for that role.
Rubicon is interesting in theory, particular given its relatively unique setting, but its creative team never manages to get the story to reach that potential, their individual weaknesses colliding to sink Rubicon the graphic novel. Rubicon will almost certainly work better as a film (and probably as a videogame) where the right actors can bring the struggle to life, so this isn't exactly a fatal blow for the property at large, but it's nonetheless disappointing that this creative team couldn't make it work in this format.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter egos at Fitness and Pontypool.