A preacher says grace with his family. He has a kind voice and is revered by his wife and young son. Their pleasant dinner is interrupted by a knock at the door from the preacher’s past. The stranger on the other side, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sporting two gold pistols, joins them at the dinner table. The preacher begs, but the stranger shoots him and his wife several moments and then uses a razor to carve a cross into the young boy’s forehead.
This is the opening to The Harder They Fall; it sets the stage for a film that will all at once be a revenge picture, a colourful and bloody action picture, a history lesson, and a damn good time at the movies.
Jumping head to some years later, we meet Nat Love (Jonathan Majors). The boy with the cross carved into his forehead has grown up to be an outlaw who robs outlaws and spends his free time hunting down the gang members that murdered his family. However, he’s resigned to never catching up with the man who pulled the triggers –Rufus Buck (Idris Elba)– as he is serving a life sentence in a local prison.
Love has several fun characters in his crew, including sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi) and quickdraw James Beckwourth (RJ Cyler). After their latest robbery, they are told that the $25,000 they just took from a local gang of thieves is meant for Buck, and not only that: Buck is getting out of prison. The trio head to meet with Stagecoach Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz) and her right hand Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler), where they are intercepted by Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo). While the film would have you believe it so, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that their interests all align, and they form a posse to go after Buck.
Buck, in the meantime, is being transported by train, where he is liberated from custody by his gang. The sociopath Trudy Smith (Regina King) and the quickdraw Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Standfield) intimidate an entire train full of soldiers to free him, despite having already secured a pardon for Buck past misdeeds. This sequence is one of the early standouts, allowing King and Stanfield to chew the scenery a little and then Elba to impose upon the rest of the characters present.
If there’s one thing this film does well, it introduces the bad guys. Well, the antagonists. None of them is good guys. Both gangs are now on a collision course, thanks to the money and the scar, and while there is some pontificating and monologing, and then a bloody showdown in which members on both sides die from bullets and/or explosions.
The cast is, in a word, stacked. Everyone is excellent, so it is difficult to single out performances, but for those of you with any doubt left about Jonathan Majors, this film should put them to rest; he is effortlessly charismatic and cool. Zazie Beets continues her streak of stealing every scene she is ever in, with the possible exception of the verbal (and then physical) sparring match she has with Regina King, whose Trudy can stop a train with but a look.
Idris Elba is more engaged in this role than I have seen in ages (and it’s not like he wasn’t earlier this year in Suicide Squad). Buck is both charismatic and aloof, and while he seems to have a code and a plan to create a town for black men and women to reside in peacefully, he also harbours no illusions that it’s his town and that he rules it. In a role that could so easily have been a loud, hot-headed, over the top performance, Elba instead is quiet and cold, and he’s all the more menacing for it.
Lakeith Stanfield is similarly excellent as Cherokee Bill, a quickdraw with a reputation for lethality but not necessarily winning by fair means. Nevertheless, Stanfield creates an aura of threat while remaining well-spoken and charming. In particular, his inevitable showdown with the quickdraw from the opposing side (Cyler) is one to watch for.
And then there is Delroy Lindo, who is always a win. Whether Bass Reeves is cooly threatening a man over a drink or walking down a street with two guns in hand, Lindo is never not in full command of the screen.
All of this is tied together by director Jeymes Samuel, drawing on every classic western ever made here. He seems to have little interest in revisionism here: the wild west in The Harder They Fall is influenced by spaghetti westerns of the past; towns are purpose-built sets, costumes are dazzling and functional, and the film is colourful as hell overall. One late film fight takes place in a factory where cloth is dyed in various bright colours, and it lays bare how much modern blockbusters desaturate themselves in the name of realism.
Of course, this film isn’t striving for realism with its story, but it is with its characters. As the title card immediately reminds you: this is a fictitious story, but all of these people existed. Nat Love, Bass Reeves, Rufus Buck, Stagecoach Mary, all of them are African American figures from the wild west. Maybe this story isn’t real, but all these characters had stories, and if this movie makes anyone look them up, that’ll be a win. The film also serves as a reminder that not only did black cowboys exist, but they existed in great numbers. Depending on who you talk to, the number of African American cowboys as 25-30% of the total, no matter what the Hollywood of old let you believe.
None of this even begins to cover the big third act action sequence either, which I will tell you is fantastic but otherwise leave as a surprise for you, dear reader.
The Harder They Fall is a delightfully old school western. Featuring big name talent playing actual historical figures in a brightly lit and colourful world influenced by the likes of everyone from John Ford to Sergio Leone to Sam Raimi, it’s one of the best films that Netflix has released this year and one of my favourite films of 2021 so far.
The Harder They Fall is on Netflix now.
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