Jeymes Samuel’s audaciously stylized western The Harder They Fall opens Oct. 22 in select theaters, Nov. 3 on Netflix.
The Harder They Fall puts the wild back into the Wild West.
Imagine a dream team collaboration of Sergio Leone, John Woo and Spike Lee, and you’re ready for director Jeymes Samuel’s audaciously stylized and brazenly entertaining western, an exhilarating mashup of New School hip-hop swagger, Old West revenge melodrama, heist-movie double- and triple-crossing, and Spaghetti Western visual and narrative tropes. After its Wednesday premiere as the opening night presentation of the prestigious BFI London Film Festival, this sensational shoot-‘em-up will be available Oct. 22 in select theaters — arguably the ideal place to fully savor and enthusiastically share such a rock-the-house concoction — and Nov. 3 on Netflix.
Jonathan Majors (Hostiles, Captive State) stars as Nat Love, an outlaw who’s on the verge of going legit until he hears the notorious Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) — the varmint who, years earlier, murdered his family and left him physically and emotionally scarred — has escaped from a prison-bound train with the help of confederates led by “Treacherous” Trudy Smith (Oscar winner Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield).
So Love reassembles his own gang — a motley crew that includes the mercurial Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), the cocksure Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler), and the formidable Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz) — and sets out on a vengeance trail. Also along for the ride: No less a notable than Bass Reeves. Delroy Lindo steals every scene that isn’t bolted the floor as the legendary slave-turned-lawman, effortlessly exuding authority while hardly ever raising his voice. When someone rightly notes that enemies old and new are out to kill him, Lindo’s Reeves impatiently dismisses the threat: “They always seem to die before they get the job done.” As Walter Brennan’s Will Sonnett used to say: No brag. Just fact.
Delroy Lindo (center) rides tall with Jonathan Majors (left) and RJ Cyler.
Maybe you’ve never thought of Idris Elba (pictured at top with Jonathan Majors) in a Lee Van Cleef role. Fortunately for all of us, filmmaker/singer-songwriter director Samuel has done just that. And Elba is every bit the intimidating badass you could have hoped for as the casually savage Rufus Buck. But, then again, Jonathan Majors also displays an impressive amount of testicular fortitude, so that it doesn’t sound anything like empty boasting when Love vows: “Man or devil, this is going to be Buck’s last day among the living.”
Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., editor Tom Eagles, production designer Martin Whist, costume designer Antoinette Messam and other members of the behind-the-scenes crew deserve a fistful of kudos for their awards-worthy contributions to The Harder They Fall, all of which greatly enhance the overall impression that Samuel, directing from a script he co-wrote with Boaz Yakin (Fresh, Remember the Titans), has riffed through the entire history of the western genre for the filmic version of a club DJ’s wild and crazy remix, much like Baz Luhrmann ransacked a half-century of pop music history to collect the playlist for his razzle-dazzling Moulin Rouge! Indeed, Samuel offers a sassy tip of the Stetson to Luhrmann when we first meet Beetz’s Stagecoach Mary as the attention-grabbing star of the floorshow in her inordinately lavish saloon.
Later, Samuel makes an equally clever wink-wink, nudge-nudge acknowledgement of the, ahem, ethnicity of his main players by having them ride into a “white town” where everything — people, buildings, horses, everything — is not just white, but really, really white. Naturally, a conspicuously Caucasian teller is condescendingly snooty when a Black stranger walks into her bank. Just as naturally, this is a big mistake.
But not quite as big a mistake, it should be noted, as one made early in The Harder They Fall by an unenlighted fellow who dares to drop the N-bomb in the presence of King’s hard-and-nails Trudy Smith. That is, he starts to drop it — but is interrupted when Trudy expresses her disapproval nonverbally. When her partner in crime suggests that maybe, just maybe, “He might could have said nincompoop,” she brusquely responds: “We ain’t no nincompoop.” All of which serves to establish her as a textbook example of someone who would kill you just as soon as look at you.
Mind you, there is nothing self-mocking or tongue-in-cheeky about King’s performance, or anyone else’s performance here. RJ Cyler (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) provides comic relief while repeatedly popping off with industrial-strength braggadocio — “I’m lightning with the blam-blams!” — as gunslinger James Beckwourth, a character who, like many others in The Harder They Fall, is loosely based on a real-life figure. (The movie actually opens with this intertitle: “While the events of this story are fictional … These. People. Existed.”) But even Cyler is deadly serious about doing what a man — and a woman — has got to do when the stakes are high and the bullets fly. That is just one of the reasons why the movie is an absolute gas.
And at the very end, when there’s a teasing hint that a sequel may be in store, there’s only one rational response: Bring it on!
Photography: courtesy David Lee/Netflix