The Harder They Fall, Netflix, 139 minutes, 2021, R
This movie, which shares the same title as a 1956 boxing film noir starring Humphrey Bogart, pays lip service to such real-life black legends of the Old West as Nat Love, Bass Reeves, Cherokee Bill and Bill Pickett, many of whom have yet to have their life stories told on the big screen (though rodeo great Pickett did star in two since lost silent films). From the opening credits—in which a body careens into the air as it’s being shot to pieces—it’s clear The Harder They Fall has no interest in being a staid historical fiction. This is pure, ultra-violent B movie pulp in which attractive movie stars in pristine clothing trade barbs and bullets across a scrumptious Wild West playground (sometimes quite literally scrumptious—I’ve honestly never seen food, from the steaks to the fruit, look so tasty in a Western). The gunslinger’s aim is as perfect as his comic timing. It’s a glossy throwback that calls to mind Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead but is kept fresh by an unfamiliar cast for the genre—an all-black one.
Outside of a few notable examples (Sergeant Rutledge, Buck and the Preacher and Posse come to mind), black actors have rarely popped up in Western cinema. Considering the genre peaked from the 1930s through the ’60s, when blacks were seldom depicted on-screen at all, that may come as little surprise, but it is nonetheless an unfortunate reality, especially considering that nearly one in four cowboys in the Old West were black. As a lifelong fan of the genre and someone who has admittedly grown used to Wild West mythology feeling and looking a certain way on screen, I found The Harder They Fall a refreshing change of pace. The film darts across the frontier from one vibrant, all-black town to the next accompanied by a great soundtrack that features everything from reggae to funk. While the film is wholly and unequivocally black, a fun bank robbery scene does briefly take us to the white West—which presents an opportunity for some playful set design and color grading.
The Harder They Fall is not without its faults, most of which originate from the fact it refuses one of the key tenets of the B Western—simplicity. What would otherwise be a straightforward revenge story is encumbered by unnecessary plot deviations and machinations that fly at you with all the subtlety of a load of buckshot. Despite a bloated 2-hour, 19-minute runtime, there’s little time to get to know the characters in any real way. They survive on charisma alone. Fortunately for viewers, the cast—Idris Elba (as Rufus Buck), Delroy Lindo (Bass Reeves), LaKeith Stanfield (Cherokee Bill), Zazie Beets (Stagecoach Mary), among others—has abundant charisma. Nat Love, re-envisioned as a sort of Wild West Robin Hood, is played by Jonathan Majors, and he’s so fantastic that one is left disappointed when he isn’t given more to do. The film grows overly infatuated with its thinly drawn peripheral characters and sometimes feels like it’s trying to get 20 singers to harmonize. The individual players may be fantastic, but the movie doesn’t work as a sprawling ensemble. It should be Majors’ movie—he proves himself more than capable as the lead.
Despite such shortfalls, director Jeymes Samuel does boast great control over style and tone—which remains playful enough as the plot bounces from one cliché to the next—though for some it may be too reliant on cartoonish violence. Ultimately, The Harder They Fall is an on-the-nose genre film, like they used to make ’em—there’s the good guys, there’s the bad guys, and they’re gonna duke it out…and there’s Ms. Lauryn Hill on the soundtrack.
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