If there were ever a movie genre in need of a shakeup, it’s the Western. Writer-director Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall freshens up the formula by injecting this old-school genre with a new-school swagger.
The Harder They Fall begins with a tragic prologue when A gang of outlaws show up at the Love family’s doorstep. The gang’s leader, Rufus Buck (ldris Elba), wants to settle an old score, so he kills the husband and wife. Rufus spares their son Nat, but not before sadistically carving a cross into the young boy’s forehead.
Flash-forward twenty years and Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) is now a notorious outlaw with his own score to settle. Nat dedicated his life to killing the scumbags who murdered his family. However, Rufus has eluded Nat because he has spent the last few years rotting away in prison. When Rufus’ gang busts him out of jail, Nat assembles a crew to finally exact his revenge.
You can’t discuss The Harder They Fall without addressing the all-star cast; it’s an embarrassment of riches. Even though the movie clocks in at over two hours, it’s still not enough time to do all the actors justice.
In the last two years Jonathan Majors upgraded from a “Who’s that guy?” to an “Oh, that guy!” He’s appeared in a hit prestige TV series, a Spike Lee Joint, and left his mark on the MCU. Majors is electric as ever as the film’s brooding anti-hero. Majors’ performances as Nat removes any doubt he has ascended to Hollywood leading man status.
The always dependable Elba is in top form, though underutilized as smouldering gangster Rufus Buck. Elba’s performance gets overshadowed by Buck’s henchmen; Treacherous Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield).
Both actors bring a cold, calculating menace to their roles. Although Trudy and Cherokee Bill are ruthless villains who take life without remorse, both performances are so compelling you just can’t root against them.
This cast is rock-solid from top to bottom, with even minor players like Deon Cole’s crooked mayor Wiley Escoe making a strong impression. I would watch a spinoff about the film’s side characters like Danielle Deadwyler’s pint-sized dynamo Cuffee and Delroy Lindo’s grizzled lawman Bass Reeves.
The Harder They Fall works so well because the cast is having a blast with the material, and it shows. Much like a Marvel movie, Samuel and Boaz Yakin’s screenplay switches back and forth between irreverent and deadly serious.
The flashy visuals often work in service of the story and its themes – like an action sequence in an all-white town. When I say all-white, I mean the shops, the dirt roads, and even the horses look like someone dumped a can of white paint on them. This powerful visual metaphor is the film’s way of calling out Hollywood’s history of white-washing westerns.
At times, though, things are flashy to the point of distraction. This film tries to be gritty and glossy in equal measure, and it doesn’t always work. These gruff old cowpokes have grime caked under their fingernails and tobacco-stained teeth, which is right on brand. But everyone still looks like they just stepped off the pages of a Calvin Klein catalogue. Cowboys have always been considered sexy, but these characters’ impeccable tailoring makes them look more like old west cosplayers than ruff and tumble outlaws.
The Harder They Fall’s banging soundtrack only adds to the picture’s stylish music video vibe. The film features rap, Afrobeat, and reggae tracks from Dennis Brown, Barrington Levy, and Fela Kuti. As much as I love the classic spaghetti western sound, hearing these beloved black artists turn up in a Western score hyped me up like few other needle drops.
The slick visuals work more often than they don’t. Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. captures the unflattering day-to-day reality of old west life and pairs it with sweeping shots of the new frontier’s majestic vistas. The polished camera work imbues the film with a rugged elegance.
Samuel delivers about two-thirds of a great movie. For all its splashy visuals and colourful characters, the experience left me wanting a touch more soul. The film feels like an impression of an impression, the work of someone cribbing Tarantino cribbing Leone. And when you make a copy of a copy, something always gets lost in the translation.
But at the end of the day, Tarantino and Leone are still two fine inspirations. The movie works as an action-packed, genre-busting joyride at the expense of giving its outstanding cast more time to do their thing.
The Harder They Fall arrives on Netflix on November 3rd, 2021.