A film review by Craig J. Koban November 16, 2021

Rank: #25

THE HARDER THEY FALL jjj
 

2021, R, 139 mins.

Jonathan Majors as Nat Love  /  Zazie Beetz as Stagecoach Mary  /  Idris Elba as Rufus Buck  /  Regina King as Trudy Smith  /  Delroy Lindo as Bass Reeves  /  LaKeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill  /  Edi Gathegi as Bill Pickett  /  Deon Cole as Wiley Escoe  RJ Cyler as Jim Beckwourth

Directed by Jeymes Samuel  /  Written by Jeymes Samuel and Boaz Yakin

ORIGINAL FILM

The Western genre is as old as the proverbial hills and has been literally done to death over the years, but what Netflix's THE HARDER THEY FALL does with it is pretty thankless.  

It's a sensationally realized Western that plays into its troupes, to be sure, but like a hypodermic needle to the genre's heart it injects some much needed stylistic freshness and innovation into the proceedings on top of boasting one of the finest ensemble casts of this past year.  It's a mishmash of multiple influences, ranging from old school Spaghetti Westerns to 1970s blaxploitation to the type of throw caution to the wind boldness of approach of a Quentin Tarantino, but British musician turned director Jeymes Samuel (in his filmmaking debut here) has finely crafted something special with his mostly all-black cast Western.  It might not be the first of its ilk (see Mario Van Peebles 1993 offering POSSE), but it's absolutely its most assured and savvy, especially on a level of pure genre representation. 

The film opens with a title card: "While the events in this story are fictional, these people existed."  This is kind of akin to what Tarantino did with his loosely fact based war thriller INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.  The characters in THE HARDER THEY FALL are based on real life lawmen, cowboys, and outlaws of 19th Century America, but the narrative thrust of the whole piece has been dramatized with Samuel's own brand of transformative style, even though it's set in a tangible part of our past.  In short, this is mostly a piece of pure make-believe, but what an inspired piece of make-believe it is!  Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) is a cowboy hero that was once a slave in the Old South that witnessed his parents brutally murdered right before his childhood eyes by  madman crook Rufus Buck (an eerily intimidating and perfect cast Idris Elba).  This dude is so sick that he carved a crucifix into Nat's forehead as a symbol of the day in question, which the lad will never, ever be able to shake, even while looking at his reflection.  And you kind of just sense in these types of revenge westerns that this boy will grow up and yearn to seek some serious comeuppance on the sociopath that wronged him. 

And, yes, Nat does indeed grow up and into a fairly lethal and respected gunslinger outlaw uniquely his own, with his motley crew of misfits being comprised of Cuffee (Daniel Deadwyler) and (R.J. Cuyler).  Like all western gunslingers, he's got a lady that he left that he still pines for in Mary (Zazie Beetz), who's now a singer in her own saloon that lives and plays by her own rules and apart from her ex's troublemaking ways.  Concurrent to this is the prison train transfer break out of Rufus himself, which is orchestrated by his right-hand woman in Trudy Smith (a terrific Regina King) and the faster than lightning quick draw man Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), which is one of the many finely orchestrated sequences in THE HARDER THEY FALL.  Trudy and her posse ruthlessly board the speeding train, which is controlled by U.S. Calvary and houses a chained down Rufus that's also being entombed in an iron vault (this is the stuff of joyous comic book villain infamy).  After a standoff between Trudy's thugs and the military men (mostly done with verbal sparring and threats), the latter gives in and lays down their weapons and lets Rufus free...but then his team murders nearly all of the servicemen before fleeing the train.  Rufus is a baddie that means business and definitely doesn't mess around, and you know that Nat and his clan have their work cut out for them. 

 

 

They say that movies like this have heroes that are only as good as their villains, and THE HARDER THEY FALL is absolutely no exception.  Majors - an actor with a remarkably bright future ahead - is such a swaggering delight here as his headstrong hero in Nat, who not only displays a determined fearlessness while in pursuit of his ultimate prey, but also is a man haunted by the past nightmare of his parent's murder, which fuels his rage.  He's an emotionally vulnerable, but physically lethal hero in equal dosages.  By comparison, Elba's Rufus casts an equally sizeable shadow over the entire film as his soft spoken maniac that can kill a man with just so much as a stare (Elba might be the best actor at portraying deeply internalized fury with stillness and calm).  His number two in Regina King's Trudy is a fantastically rendered creation as well, and within a few short introductory moments you gain an immediate impression that this tough talking and no-nonsense woman is not to be trifled with in any respect.  Unlike so many damsel in distress female personas that usually dominate westerns Trudy is no helpless victim here.  In many respects, she's as scary as her boss. 

It would be easy to forget about the rest of this bravura cast, so let's not do that.  I've always found LaKeith Stanfield and all of its twitchy and feverishly nervous characters that teeter on mental implosion to be endlessly intriguing, but he kind of effectively plays against type here as Cherokee Bill, who's a bloodthirsty killer that quietly boasts about his killstreak while downplaying any word-of-mouth press that he actually just sucker shoots his targets in the back for easy assassinations.  I also liked the feisty tenacity that Zazie Beetz brings to the tables as well as her lounge singer that can absolutely hold her own in a brawl or gun fight.  And hey, even the magnificent Delroy Lindo shows up here!  The actor was so unfairly marginalized and forgotten about during Oscar time with his tour de force supporting turn in last year's Spike Lee joint DA 5 BLOODS (also produced by Netflix), and he appears here as a lawman with a code that gets caught between all of the aforementioned parties.  This underrated industry character actor here - as he's done time and time again - proves that he can class up just about any film with his sizeable screen presence alone. 

On a directing side, special props needs to be given to the filmmaking greenhorn in Samuel (who also serves as co-writer here), and he acclimates himself to tackling this genre (and dismantling it) with the poise and confidence of a wily ol' veteran director.  THE HARDER THEY FALL is as visually dynamic and viscerally impactful as any Western I've recently seen.  Working alongside cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., Samuel concocts a both a stunning looking period film that echoes the beautiful panoramic vistas of iconic westerns of yesteryear (they really know how to fill the widescreen frame) while also infusing in it a whole new eye popping visual dynamism that's thoroughly striking to behold.  THE HARDER THEY FALL is hyper kinetic at times (some might semi-accurately label it as music video-esque), but never obtrusively so and not to the point where it betrays the aesthetic purity of classic westerns of old.  Samuel proves here that he's an astute student of the genre inside and out, and understands that his Western should look like masterful Westerns of old, but he isn't about to religiously play within its outdated playbook. 

There are a handful of outstandingly choreographed sequences that stand out and put Samuel on the map.  We do get all of the obligatory standoffs, quick draw battles, large scale gunfights and fisticuffs, and horse and foot chases, but Samuel peppers all of the moments with his breakneck, knockdown style that gives this film an enjoyably anachronistic sensibility (on top of littering the film with contemporary music and songs, this is also an unforgivably violent and blood-soaked western  that absolutely earns its R rating).  I even liked the in-your-face moments of visual satire too, like a sly robbery scene set in a "white town" that's literally covered in head to toe in...ultra harsh white tones.  Everything is white in this town....like...everything.  I think the juxtaposition here of showing these black characters in this bleached out setting is both amusing and sobering to the whole film's core messaging: The Western genre has been for far too long a white's only club that rarely, if ever, has featured any sizable minority characters of worthwhile interest...or it has been a genre that contains virtually no examples with an all minority cast.  Sequences like this have a deliberate blunt force level of hammering home ideas, to be sure, and are anything but subtle, but Samuel is aggressively trying to make a valid point here while trying to audaciously mix things up.  This white town sequence may seem wholly preposterous, but it does rightfully serve up some thematic significance.  I always applaud it when filmmakers just go for it and take chances.   

Actually, THE HARDER THEY FALL works so stunningly well as an exercise in Western filmmaking (with many twists and turns, make no mistake about it) that very early on the ethnicity of the cast simply doesn't draw attention to itself and the actors just disappear into their characters and story.  Now, it's of crucial importance that the cast here is largely African American and occupy a genre that has been largely owned by white Hollywood actors for a century-plus.  THE HARDER THEY FALL is combating some of the more off-putting legacies of Western mythology, and to its esteemed credit it succeeds at challenging them.  Those expecting historical accuracy here...please!  THE HARDER THEY FALL is not aiming to be a fact-based account on reality based personas, but rather is a portal into the past that serves as a piece of social/industry commentary.  The genre archetypes in this film are achingly familiar to filmgoers - family tragedy, long lost love, revenge, power hungry greed, coming to grips with your past and dealing with the violent repercussions of it in the present - but Samuel uses and contorts them to confront viewers with the notion of how important diversity means in all types of films, especially this type.  THE HARDER THEY FALL is not just a superb black Western, but a superb Western.  Period.  

And understanding that difference is a key first step moving forward. 

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