For those wondering (and I doubt many are), this isn’t a remake of Humphrey Bogart’s 1956 boxing drama. Nope, this is a stylish new Western from the folks at Netflix. Directed and co-written by singer-songwriter Jeymes Samuel, this star-studded shoot ‘em up immediately grabs your attention for its predominantly black cast. But despite a strong start and the amazing talent on screen, the film sags in the middle before limping across the finish line with its predictable ending and head-scratching sequel setup.
“The Harder They Fall” tells a fictional story but uses real 19th century Old West wranglers, lawmen and outlaws. The story begins with a bang. In the tradition of some of the great spaghetti westerns, the movie opens with a fantastic credits sequence followed by a burst of violence that will define key characters moving forward. In this case a young boy watches his parents gunned down in cold blood. It’s an exceptionally shot scene that echoes the work of the genre’s two greatest Sergio’s – Leone and Corbucci.
Years later, the traumatized boy is now a man going by the name Nat Love (played by an exceptional Jonathan Majors). Marked by a cross carved into his forehead by his parents’ killer, the revenge-fueled Nat gets wind that the man he’s looking to kill, Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), was out of prison. Helping him on his quest for vengeance is saloon owner and Nat’s former flame Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), dead-eye sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), a young quick-draw named Jim Beckworth (RJ Cyler), and Mary’s loyal saloon hand Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler). Also joining them is seasoned lawman Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) who has a bone to pick with Nat but wants Rufus more.
Meanwhile, in one of the movie’s very best scenes both visually and performance-wise, Rufus Buck faithfuls, the surly “Treacherous” Trudy Smith (Regina King), the sly ruthless Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) and a few disposables, bust their leader out of a prison train and then head for the town of Redwood City. Once there they kick out its crooked sheriff, once an old associate of Rufus’ named Wiley Escoe (an excellent Deon Cole), and set up shop. Sadly, it’s here where the movie begins to stall.
For some reason Idris Elba, bursting with charisma and brandishing a quiet menace, up and vanishes for a long stretch of the movie. He essentially stays shut up in Redwood City waiting for the inevitable showdown between gangs. The movie misses his presence. Majors is terrific and carries his gang’s load (he has some especially good scenes opposite of Beetz). But when it comes to Buck’s gang, King and Stanfield (both really good here) do their best but are stuck in one place basically spinning their wheels. It’s a shame, because together with Elba, the three make for a cracking combination. Each give us characters who grab us and leave us wanting more of them.
This is the feature film debut for Jeymes Samuel whose sure-handed direction and blaring style routinely gives us something cool to look at and admire. But not all of his choices work. For example, there are scattered patches of dialogue which sound plucked out of a modern day comedy rather than in the American west. There’s also a few scenes where Samuel’s ambition gets the best of him and he gets a little too carried away.
A good example is a bank robbery scene in Maysville, a town exclusively populated by wealthy white folks. The entire town is quite literally whitewashed from top to bottom. Every building, every water trough, every hitching post. Even the ground. I won’t spoil any more, but the symbolism is pretty crafty. Unfortunately the execution is so glaringly on the nose and the town so brazenly fake that it yanked me out of the movie.
While the film sometimes feels a bit too polished, its characters are full of grit. The violence is probably best described as Tarantino-light. It can be brutal and rather gruesome and other times it’s almost cartoonish. But more importantly, it works well within Samuel’s world. And while the story can be pretty grim, there’s enough witty rapport to keep things from becoming too dry and dour. Yet with all of that, the style-over-substance story can’t keep its momentum. And rather than building up to a big finish, we’re left with an overly long middle that drains too much energy and leaves you wondering “Where’s Idris?” “The Harder They Fall is now showing in select theaters and premieres on Netflix November 3rd.