The Harder They Fall, 2021
Directed Jeymes Samuel
Starring Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz, Idris Elba, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, LaKeith Stanfield, Danielle Deadwyler, Edi Gathegi, Deon Cole, Woody McClain, RJ Cyler, Damon Wayans Jr., Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Jacobi Howard, Manny Rubio, Mickey Dolan, Sadiqua Bynum, Peyton Jackson, Mark Rhino Smith, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Dylan Kenin, and Terrence Clowe
When an outlaw discovers his enemy is being released from prison, he reunites his gang to seek revenge in this Western.
The Harder They Fall plays out as a simplistic revenge story, but such familiarity also doesn’t matter considering the lack of Black-led Westerns. In that department, musician/co-writer/director Jeymes Samuel (using some of the same characters from his previous 53-minute short film Western starring the late great Michael Kenneth Williams) has assembled what is easily one of the year’s best ensembles, a treasure trove of rising Black superstars (Jonathan Majors and Idris Elba portraying rival outlaws) and legends of the screen (Delroy Lindo and Regina King, in their respective meaty roles). Of course, it’s because of those reliable and charismatic performers (combined with Jeymes Samuel’s kinetic style, luscious visuals, catchy and varied written music constructed with Jay-Z (who also serves as a producer), and pulpy approach) that The Harder They Fall transcends basic plotting. These are actors capable of making tired twists something to invest in emotionally.
Jonathan Majors (continuing to be masterful at every role he touches) is Nat Love (a real outlaw that existed, as preopening credits text emphasizes that while liberties have been taken with history, all of these notable characters were real people), a wanted gunslinger perpetually on a quest for vengeance against Idris Elba’s ruthless Rufus Buck. He murdered Nat’s parents in front of his eyes when he was only ten years old, and then proceeded to burn a cross into the boy’s forehead. Such tragedy is depicted in an explosive prologue, immediately clearing viewers into the B-movie vibe, anachronistic dialogue and music, and slick cinematography from Mihai Malaimare Jr. that occasionally and breathtakingly employs aerial shots of post-Civil War Texas, sometimes during intense shootouts. If you still don’t know what you’re in for, the movie’s title is flashed across the screen word by word as Nat kills off another of Rufus’ trusted henchmen, body flying through the air from each absorbed bullet.
Getting to Rufus proves to be difficult, as he is behind bars. Naturally, his crew stages a breakout, as we meet the likes of his ferocious partner Trudy Smith (a scene-stealing Regina King, also allowed to deliver a monologue detailing a traumatic childhood event that set her on her current path) and the deceitful and snaky Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) who will put a bullet in someone’s back when they least expect it. Of course, Nat has his posse to counter this, comprised of showboating marksman Jim Beckworth (RJ Cyler), the gender fluid and enigmatic Cuffee (my personal favorite, as played by Danielle Deadwyler), and former flame and business owner Stagecoach Mary (a terrific Zazie Beetz juggling love interest designation with independence and toughness). Mary also wants nothing more to do with Nat romantically, aware that he will never stop searching for Rufus.
Aside from the relatively nonstop action, rotating locales (at one point, Nat’s crew has to rob a bank from a white town, where the entire environment is covered in a white powder color), and numerous needle drops of original songs, and that electric cast, The Harder They Fall is primarily so damn entertaining because of its propulsive momentum, even at almost 2 hours and 20 minutes. It’s aware that the general plot is not a strength, relying on momentum, talent in front of the camera, and tight direction (especially whenever guns come out, and doubly so when Regina King and Zazie Beetz get to kick the shit out of one another). And even though the script is light and character development, Jonathan Majors and Idris Elba strike gold, conveying emotion throughout their final scene together.
As a filmmaker, Jeymes Samuel is first and foremost concerned with doing justice to these real-life figures and bringing their personalities to life with a modern-day variation. Beyond pushing to acknowledge the existence of these people, The Harder They Fall is less serious and more playfully violent. It’s a piece of proud Black pop culture soaring with directorial technique, magnetic acting, and crowd-pleasing blood splatters. The fundamentals are so well executed that it also turns out to be somewhat emotional during its climax. Given that Jeymes Samuel seems lovingly drawn to the Western genre, here’s hoping he is granted the money to enlighten and entertain with more dynamite stories of unsung Black outlaws that deserve to be told.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com