“These. People. Existed.” proclaims The Harder They Fall in giant letters as the action movie starts, plainly stating its intentions as a historical reclamation. Like the journey of Jonathan Majors’s Nat Love to avenge his father, Jeymes Samuel’s Western seeks to right the wrong of Black erasure in the old west. A shot in the arm and then some, Samuel provides a vibrant, vital feeling cowboy adventure movie.
In Texas during the late 1800s, Nat gets word that Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), of the Rufus Buck Gang, is being broken out of prison. After watching Rufus kill his parents, Nat’s not one to turn up the chance at getting his own back, and assembles a crew all his own for war.
True to its word, The Harder They Fall makes heavy use of real, prominent figures from this era. Besides Nat and Rufus, you’ve got Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield), Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler), and Bass Reeves, the first Black US Marshall, whose bushy moustache looks all the mightier on Delroy Lindo. Fiction populated by fact, the lines are blurred for a celebratory deconstruction of Hollywood’s old frontier.
Outlaws rule the desert vistas and open planes, as Cherokee Bill and Jim Beckwourth steal another hapless gun-slinger’s payload. This is just after we’re introduced to Majors, who gives Nat the same kind of effortlessly captivating entrance we saw in the ending of Loki on Disney Plus. Nat has returned to an old haunt at the same time that Bill and Jim’s score suggests something meaner is coming.
Full of wisecracks and jibes, the possibility of Rufus Buck’s return is the only thing to give any of them pause. Facing him is tantalising but the timing is inconvenient – Nat was just ready to settle down with Beetz’s Mary for some of the quiet life. Alas, loose ends must be tied up, and everyone rallies behind Nat, even Bass, who forgoes Nat’s bounty to take down the bigger threat.
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Just as Samuel gives us Nat’s crew, we get Lakeith Stanfield and Regina King, both in great form as they remorselessly commandeer the train holding Rufus. As clever and witty as their opposing goodies, these two have little problem carving up or blowing apart anyone to get what they came for. In one foul swoop, Stanfield cuts up a man’s legs and negotiates a trade for a soldier’s life, his steady demeanour the focal point throughout.
Though Rufus and Nat are the central characters, Samuel treats everyone like the hero of their own story. Whether through dialogue, or the way they handle opposition, we come to understand and respect them for how they’ve ended up in the position they’re in. To wit, the Rufus Buck Gang are all survivors of abuse, and The Harder They Fall is partially an acid western about their last gasp at power.
Elba’s Rufus is hard and broad-shouldered, and announces himself by humiliating a local mayor in broad daylight. Moments before he makes a joke with passing children, and gives them the gold teeth he knocks out of his victim’s mouth. A prologue shows exactly why Nat’s the protagonist here, but that context is a matter of timing and perspective that Samuel Boaz Yakin’s script gradually leans into.
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For as funny and jovial as the film is – and there are several genuine laughs – it uses the opportunity of highlighting Black history to make a broader point on the misremembered glory of the wild west. Nobody here chose this life, but rather, found themselves in it, using whiskey and cabaret and blood to numb the pain. Towns are shot like toy sets, with big square buildings and gentle movement on the simple yellow sand, but once you step inside, it’s all tangled misery.
An appreciation for classic westerns is loudly apparent from the costumes and plotting to the candid dialogue. Jokes are repeatedly made about someone playing the hero, or the slow countdown on a quickdraw competition. Samuel continually highlights what he enjoys, only to take a slight turn each time, shifting scenes from bold-faced recreation to self-aware commentary, stopping short of satire.
It’s something that works as much as it does because of the cast. Stanfield, Majors, Gathegi, everyone’s delivery is sharp and in-the-moment, making decisions seem deliberate and obvious after the fact. The Harder They Fall is confident in the versions of these people it’s sketching out, and the impression it’s leaving us with. Even if you don’t care to look up about the actual history, you’ll want more of these actors in more of these roles.
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Some parts do stumble. One shootout becomes obvious by Star Trek’s red shirt rule, whereby the less recognisable actor is who suffers, and a fight between King and Zeetz leaves something to be desired. Women getting action scenes is still progressive in and of itself, but the fact the two female leads are paired off is disappointing. They’re integrated but not – present, and emphasised, but still made play in their own sandbox away from the boys, demonstrating there’s still attitudes to be overcome.
Minor faults in a redrawing of America’s history that’s got plenty of rootin’ and tootin’ going for it. Samuel scores the picture himself, crossing bits and bobs of r’n’b, electronica, and dub, for a modern sheen that connects the past with the present. Long overdue, The Harder They Fall is about the shared past, the shared present, and what the shared future should look like. It rides into the sunset leaving an impression, and the feeling a new sheriff’s in town – now we just need to see what bandits follow.
The Harder They Fall has a limited theatrical release on October 22, followed by its arrival on Netflix November 2.