Director: Jeymes Samuel
Writers: Jeymes Samuel, Boaz Yakin
Cast: Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Regina King, LaKeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz, Delroy Lindo, Ed Gathegi, RJ Cyler, Danielle Deadwyler
Producers: Lawrence Bender, Jay-Z, James Lassiter, Jeymes Samuel
Composer: Jeymes Samuel
Cinematographer: Mihai Malaimare Jr.
Editor: Tom Eagles
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 130mins
What’s the story: In 1800s Texas, good-natured rogue Nat Love (Majors) forms a posse to hunt down infamous outlaw Rufus Buck (Elba) for a terrible past wrong.
What’s the verdict: That characters in Jeymes Samuel’s buoyant debut are based on real life figures is something of a misdirect. The Harder They Fall unloads a six-shooter on historical accuracy and saddles up for a ride to Sergio-Leoneville for a rendezvous with Django (unchained).
Not that musician turned producer, composer, co-writer, and director Samuel pretends otherwise, setting out his stall in all its stylistic panache from the get-go. An early revenge killing is repeatedly freeze-framed to allow for the title to appear onscreen word-by-word, followed by comic book illustrations of actors accompanying their screen credits.
Which means there is a whiff of disappointment here that an opportunity for something with true grit has been missed. Not that the filmmakers are under any obligation to revise the Western or deliver a statement on America’s racial history. But coming after HBO’s Watchmen (featuring The Harder They Fall alum Regina King), which refracted race relations through a comic book lens to astonishing effect, this is ultimately heavy on the flash, light on the bang. A subplot about the US government employing African-American convicts to do their dirty work is an intriguing notion raised but swiftly dropped. Although the film does boast one of the year’s best visual gags involving a bank heist in an all-white town.
Lifting and shifting a standard Western yarn, Samuel and co-writer Boaz Yakin pit Robin Hood-style outlaw Nat Love (Majors) against real-deal assassin Rufus Buck (Elba) in post-Civil War Texas. Buck murdered Love’s folks when Nat was a youngster, leaving the kid with a cross crudely carved into his forehead. All the better for spotting Nat if he should ever come calling…
Years later, Nat does indeed hit the trail in pursuit of his nemesis. Joining him are fellow outlaws Jim (Cyler) and Bill (Gathegi), former flame Stagecoach Mary (Beetz), and the tightly wound Cuffs (Deadwyler). Lending their quest establishment credibility is straight-up lawman Sheriff Bass Reeves (Lindo), looking to tidy up Texas.
Which won’t be easy. Flanking Buck are lethal lieutenants Cherokee Bill (Stanfield) and Treacherous Trudy (King), plus a rogue’s gallery of fast-fisted ne’er-do-wells. In Buck’s town of Redwood, the stage is set for an explosive showdown.
If the script is tethered to Westerns of the 1940s and 50s, visually Samuel leans heavily on the spaghetti oaters of the 1960s and the whizzbang movies that followed their dust trail, including Tarantino’s Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. Small surprise then to see that Tarantino’s regular producing partner Lawrence Bender is on the same duty here.
Meaning that while The Harder They Fall has several longueurs and could have been south of two hours with nothing lost, it is a lively action movie with a camera as fast as Jim’s quicksilver draw. Visuals move close-up, up above, down below, and duck between the gunplay, while Samuel’s bass heavy soundtrack hits as hard as the hot lead.
The stellar cast anchor all this style with engaging performances, with not a weak turn amongst them. All visibly enjoy the opportunity to play dress up in Antoinette Messam’s exquisite costumes and be beautifully captured by Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s rich cinematography.
A minute-to-midnight twist attempts to land emotional resonance after all the expertly choreographed mayhem. Best however to regard The Harder They Fall as a gorgeously presented greatest hits package of Western conventions. Backed by streaming giant Netflix, this is not going to start a Squid Game cult. But, it will entertain those looking for a rollicking tale set once upon a time in the west.