An explosive new western with enough style to make up for a middling script.
Premise: When an outlaw discovers his enemy is being released from prison, he reunites his gang to seek revenge.
It only takes a few minutes for the stylistic elements to come blasting forward in Jeymes Samuel’s debut feature. What else would you expect from a neo-Western film with a soundtrack that boasts music from Kid Cudi & Jay Z, CeeLo Green, Seal, Alice Smith and more? The setting and overly-stylized nature (not to mention the runtime) of The Harder They Fall naturally invites comparisons to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, but Samuel isn’t interested in subverting the Western genre. Rather, the film feels like Samuel – who not only directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Boaz Yakin but composed the score as well – simply aims to show off his talents for creating bombastic, dramatic scenes with as much flair as possible.
The film opens with an eye-catching bit of violence as a mysterious stranger, wielding two gold-plated revolvers, moseys into the home of a man, his wife, and their 10-year old son. He shoots them dead, and carves something into the forehead of the boy. The motive behind this purported act of cold-blooded murder is left unsaid, but the damage is done, and when the boy becomes a man his sole mission is to seek revenge. Nothing throughout The Harder They Fall will break the mold (with one exception, which we’ll get to in a bit), and none of the characters feel new, but part of the fun of the film is in seeing the elements that Samuel has set up come together in the lively action set pieces. Indeed, I found the film to slow down considerably during the more dialogue-heavy scenes. Not because the performances are forgettable, or because the script is badly written, but because I simply wanted to get to another confrontational shoot-em-up sequence.
Samuels’ great innovation came before a single frame was shot for the film, as he populated The Harder They Fall with an all-Black cast. And what a cast it is, full of modern-day heavyweights that have been charismatic throughout their careers. Jonathan Majors plays Nat Love, the boy out for revenge; Zazie Beetz is Stagecoach Mary, a badass saloon-owner and Nat’s love interest; Idris Elba is Rufus Buck, a notorious outlaw and the man that Nat aims to kill; Regina King and Lakeith Stanfield play Rufus’ dangerous and ruthless sidekicks. And don’t forget solid turns from character actors like Delroy Lindo, Deon Cole, Danielle Deadwyler, Edi Gathegi, and Damon Wayans Jr.. If you’re at all familiar with the work of any of the above-mentioned actors, you won’t be let down here. Each performer does their part well and imbues their character with enough personality to be memorable, but the script doesn’t provide enough to be fully invested in their backstories or their missions.
The vistas of the Old West invite a viewing in the theater, and, if safely able to do so, The Harder They Fall is not to be missed on the big screen. A train heist scene is magnetically staged, with one shot in particular showing Samuel’s gift for blocking (see the film and you’ll know which one I’m talking about). A climactic fight in a garment building would feel superfluous if it didn’t fit so nicely with the overall vibrancy of the rest of the film. When you’re not focused on the punches being thrown or the guns being shot, your eye will surely be drawn to the set dressing that production designer Martin Whilst has meticulously crafted.
The Harder They Fall doesn’t have lofty aspirations or things to say about machismo, and that’s fine by me. Samuel only lightly touches on themes of race as well, a clear choice given the aforementioned cast. But not every Black-led film has to comment on race, and Samuel shouldn’t be held responsible for shoe-horning in a message that didn’t entirely fit with his film’s mission statement. I don’t know how often I’ll return to The Harder They Fall, but the action scenes alone are worth remembering, and I remain excited to hear what a new voice in action cinema has to say.
The Harder They Fall is in theaters now and releases on Netflix on November 3.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and a recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast, and a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.