It’s hard to believe another movie this year will have as strong a cast as “The Harder They Fall.” Starring in the western, which is streaming on Netflix, are Jonathan Majors (”The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “Lovecraft Country”), Zazie Beetz (”Atlanta,” “Joker”), Regina King (”If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Watchmen”), Idris Elba (no introduction necessary), LaKeith Stanfield (”Judas and the Black Messiah,” “Knives Out”), and Delroy Lindo (”Da 5 Bloods”).
Does anyone in movies today have more screen presence? Of course Lindo plays a US marshal. Everyone else plays an outlaw.
Attentive readers will have noticed that all of those actors are Black. Almost all the characters in “The Harder They Fall” are. This oughtn’t to be surprising in a western, since there were a lot of Black people in the Wild West. You can look it up. But Hollywood, for all the obvious reasons, never did. So it’s a kick seeing these actors in the saddle and wearing cowboy hats. In King’s case, she wears a derby; in Beetz’s, a top hat.
Unfortunately that kick is more conceptual than anything else. The movie is mostly grim, largely nasty, and gloatingly violent. (It is never a good idea to start a film with a child subjected to violence.) Really, what “Harder” is is glorified, post-Tarantino violence punctuated by exposition.
Static and slow, the movie feels even longer than its 137-minute length. Part of that is all the exposition. But it’s also Jeymes Samuel’s many directorial self-indulgences. Boy, does that man love overhead shots. He also likes slow motion, split screens, fisheye lenses, and there’s a zoom shot that if it zoomed any more would need to apply for a driver’s license. Maybe Samuel feels he’s earned the right to indulge himself, since he also cowrote the script (with Boaz Yakin) and composed the score.
Like so many westerns, this is a revenge tale. Nat Love (Majors) seeks retribution from Rufus Buck (Elba) for the murder of his parents. Nat was the imperiled child seen at the beginning of the movie. No, we don’t see the violence visited upon him, but you can bet the filmmakers were tempted to show it. We do get to see the gruesome scar it left.
Nat has an ever-present cheroot in his mouth — yes, like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. In fact, the first real killing is done in a style that’s molto spaghetti western; and Treacherous Trudy (King) is about the meanest gunslinger this side of Henry Fonda in “Once Upon a Time in the West.” “Harder” has an even greater affinity for another genre of that era, Blaxploitation. It’s the attitude, the language.
There are more traditional genre elements: an ambush, a train robbery, visits to a saloon, a bank robbery, a famous gunslinger and the young gun who thinks he can outdraw him. The gunslinger (Stanfield) is named Cherokee Bill. Other characters have names like Stagecoach Mary (Beetz). Inevitably, there’s a long (long) final shootout. Less inevitably, the shootout concludes with a twist that’s not at all obvious but makes perfect sense once it’s revealed. Something else that’s revealed doesn’t make sense, perfect or otherwise. The final shot all but announces there’ll be a sequel. Will they call it “. . . The Harder They Get Up Again”?
THE HARDER THEY FALL
Directed by Jeymes Samuel. Written by Samuel and Boaz Yakin. Starring Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, Idris Elba, Delroy Lindo, LaKeith Stanfield. Streaming on Netflix. 137 minutes, R (strong violence, language)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.