Hot damn, do I love this movie. Built on a recipe of high energy, creative violence, style for days, the coolest cast of the year, a propulsive soundtrack, and spaghetti Western tropes flipped on their ass, The Harder They Fall takes real-life historical figures and makes them the heroes and villains (and the vast area in between) of a revenge story for the ages. If you’re going into this film hoping for historical accuracy and pure biographical integrity, you will be sadly disappointed. But the rest of you are in for something special, courtesy of director Jeymes Samuel, who co-wrote the screenplay with Boaz Yakin.
Although the trailers for this film make it appear that Idris Elba’s brutal Rufus Buck and his outlaw partner Trudy Smith (a truly inspired nasty take by Regina King) are the stars of The Harder They Fall, the actual lead of the film is Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), who as a boy was traumatized and scarred (literally) by Buck, who killed Nat’s parents right in front of him. Since then, Love has sought revenge, but with Buck under heavy guard in prison, this has not been easy. When Smith arranges an escape with a gang that includes the current fastest gun in the West, Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), Love sees a chance to finally kill Buck.
In just examining the performances of these characters, we immediately recognize that Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Lovecraft Country) has got something so exciting, unpredictable, and new about him that his star power simply radiates off the screen in waves. This is a man fueled by a lifetime of pain and rage, and if anything gets in his way, he’ll likely stomp on it rather than try to use reason to respond to it. Whereas Cherokee Bill is a character who may draw faster than anyone, but he knows the best way not to get shot is to shoot your opponent in the back first. He’s not an honorable man, but he’s no dummy either. These are all characters who do more than just talk and stand tough in their Western wear. They are ruthless, and if killing someone gets their point across better than using words, then somebody is about to die.
Love’s ragtag posse is a bit more interesting, beginning with his former love interest Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), whom he finds working in a saloon being protected by a bouncer name Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler), who some mistake for a man, and I’m guessing that suits Cuffee just fine. A fascinating character (and I’m guessing soon to become an audience favorite), Cuffee exists in a time when words like transgender didn’t exist, and even the idea of what it represents was not acceptable, but Deadwyler plays the character as the scrappiest person in any room, not-so-secretly in love with Mary, and just fine in their own skin and too bad if you’re not. It’s a revelatory character, especially in a Western. Love’s gang is rounded out by Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), Jim Beckwourth (R.J. Cyler, who wants nothing more than to challenge Cherokee Bill), and elder statesman/lawman Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo, who played Majors’ father in last year’s Da 5 Bloods, from Spike Lee and takes on a father figure in this role as well).
One of the producers of The Harder They Fall is Jay-Z (credited as Shawn Carter), so naturally the soundtrack is front loaded with an incredible blend of new and old soul, funk and hip-hop tracks that are not the usual fare in either action films or Westerns. And when it’s all pulled together with the film’s ripping pace and positively brutal choreographed violence, it’s feels like something utterly new, even as it borrows from some of the classics. The film even has room for a few plot turns I was not expecting, as things begin to wind down. The film is adventurous, risky, bold, and so much damn fun. One could criticize the lack of accurately drawn historical figures, but then you’d be denying yourself a rip-roaring, blood-soaked shoot-em-up, and that really would be a shame, especially when we get to the movie’s climactic showdown or the almost unreal bank robbery sequence set in a place called Whitetown (and likely not because every building in it appears to be painted white). If anything, The Harder They Fall made me more curious about the real-life men and women whose legacy is made more concrete through this work.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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