The Harder They Fall
Stepping back to the Old West with an all-star cast, this revisionist western is ambitious and memorable, smart and suave, and an all-round swaggering film
October 22, 2021
UPDATE, November 3, 2021: The Harder The Fall is available to stream via Netflix from Wednesday, November 3.
Idris Elba. A piercing gaze. One helluva red velvet suit. A film can't coast by on such a combination alone, and The Harder They Fall doesn't try to — but when it splashes that vivid vision across the screen, it's nothing short of magnificent. The moment arrives well into Jeymes Samuel's revisionist western, so plenty of stylishness has already graced its frames before then. Think: Old West saloons in brilliant yellows, greens and blues; the collective strut of a cast that includes Da 5 Bloods' Delroy Lindo and Jonathan Majors, Atlanta's Zazie Beetz and LaKeith Stanfield, and If Beale Street Could Talk Oscar-winner Regina King; and an aesthetic approach that blasts together the cool, the slick and the operatic. Still, Elba and his crimson attire — and the black vest and hat that tops it off — is the exclamation mark capping one flamboyant and vibrant movie.
Imaginative is another appropriate word to describe The Harder They Fall, especially its loose and creative take on American history. Where some features based on the past take a faithful but massaged route — fellow recent release The Last Duel, for example — this one happily recognises what's fact and what's fantasy. Its main players all existed centuries ago, but Samuel and co-screenwriter Boaz Yakin (Now You See Me) meld them into the same narrative. That's an act of complete fiction, as is virtually everything except their names. The feature freely admits this on-screen before proceedings begin, though, and wouldn't dream of hiding from it. Team-up movies aren't rare, whether corralling superheroes or movie monsters, but there's a particular thrill and power to bringing together these fictionalised Black figures in such an ambitious and memorable, smart and suave, and all-round swaggering film.
After proving such a commanding lead in HBO series Lovecraft Country, Majors takes centre stage here, too, as gunslinger Nat Love. First, however, the character is initially introduced as a child (Anthony Naylor Jr, The Mindy Project), watching his parents get murdered by the infamous Rufus Buck (Elba, The Suicide Squad). A quest for revenge ensues — and yes, Nat shares an origin story with Batman. Samuel definitely isn't afraid to get stylised and cartoonish, or melodramatic, or playful for that matter. One of the keys to The Harder They Fall is that it's so many things all at once, and rarely is it any one thing for too long. This is a brash and bold western from its first vividly shot frame till its last, of course, and yet it's also a film about the tragedies that infect families, the violence that infects societies, and the hate, abuse, prejudice, discrimination and bloodshed that can flow from both. It's a romance, too, and it nails its action scenes like it's part of a big blockbuster franchise.
As an adult, Nat still has Rufus in his sights. It'll take a few twists of fate — including a great train robbery to free Rufus en route from one prison to the next — to bring them face to face again. The sequence where the outlaw's righthand woman Trudy (King) and quick-drawing fellow gang member Cherokee Bill (Stanfield) take on the law is sleek heist delight, and the saloon clash with marshal Bass Reeves (Lindo) that gets Nat back on Rufus' trail is just as dextrously handled. Nat also has bar proprietor and his on-again, off-again ex Stagecoach Mary (Beetz) on his side, plus the boastful Beckwourth (RJ Cyler, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), sharp-shooting Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi, Briarpatch) and diminutive Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler, P-Valley). Everyone gets their moments, and every one of those moments sashays towards a blood-spattered showdown.
It might seem like a pure boilerplate affair on the page, particularly when getting roguish with the western genre — and using it to muse on race — has peppered Quentin Tarantino's resume courtesy of The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained. One of the other keys to The Harder They Fall is how openly and confidently that Samuel knows whose footsteps he's following in, because this is a realm with a past as sprawling as the plains it frequently covets. Seasoned fans can spot the nods in a multitude of directions, including to 60s and 70s spaghetti westerns, and to plenty of other flicks from the same era starring Clint Eastwood. But this is act of reclamation built on the bones of all that's come before, rather than a homage; it slides into a busy field to assert a place for Black cowboys, and does so as beguilingly as Samuel knows how.
Perhaps better known as a songwriter and music producer, aka The Bullitts, Samuel brings a thrumming, dynamic, take-charge energy to The Harder They Fall. He writes, directs and composes the movie's soundtrack, too, so that applies across the board. Indeed, the way that he weaves the sounds of hip hop, reggae and afrobeat into a score that also takes cues from the late, great Ennio Morricone — the man behind the music to all of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, as well as an Oscar-winner for The Hateful Eight — perfectly encapsulates his overall approach. Samuel has room for all that's come before, and reverence for it, but he's also committed to challenging and redefining the stories and mythology it represents.
The Harder They Fall has purpose, pluck and panache — oh-so-much flair, in fact, that it drips across everything from the cinematography to the production design and dapper costuming. It has pace as well, with its 130-minute running-time whizzing by amid several shootouts filled with rapid-fire bullets and enough strong glares to fuel a franchise of flicks. It also boasts the absolute best posse that Samuel could've hoped for. The Harder They Fall's cast is the kind you build an entire movie around, not that that's the gambit here. It'd be hard to thrust this ensemble together and have something other than a spectacular acting showcase result, but this is a rollicking pleasure with the exact right cast, an abundance of smarts, savvy and style, and an unwavering backbone.
Top image: David Lee/Netflix.