What a ride.
Sergio Leone meets Quentin Tarantino at the drive-in with the darkly funny, cartoonishly violent and greatly entertaining “The Harder They Fall,” a Black Western with an amazingly talented cast, some wonderfully anachronistic dialogue and music — and an abundance of badass fistfights, shootouts, robberies, tavern sequences and showdowns on Main Street.
Not only that, but Idris Elba sheds ALL THE TEARS in a Shakespearean twist of a scene late in the film, and oh by the way: The female characters in director/co-writer/producer Jeymes Samuel’s radical, transformative, jazzy take on the Old West are so much more than mere window dressing who fret about their men’s dangerous ways and hide behind locked doors when the bullets start flying. They’re right there in the middle of the mix, throwing haymakers and cocking rifles and getting knee-deep in the muck and the grime and the blood. (And, just like the male characters, they have fantastic hats. This is one of the better Hat Movies in recent memory.)
“The Harder They Fall” is filled with characters whose names reflect real-life 19th century Black figures, including Rufus Buck, Nat Love, Cherokee Bill and Stagecoach Mary, but the story is 100% fictional. After a harrowing and tense prologue in which we see Idris Elba’s Rufus Buck gun down a preacher and his wife in cold blood and then use a switchblade to carve a cross into the forehead of their 10-year-old son, we fast forward about 25 years, when that boy has grown up to become the outlaw Nat Love (Jonathan Majors, fresh off his triumphant work in “Lovecraft Country”), who has spent much of his adult life robbing other outlaws and hunting down the gang members who were present when his parents were killed, much to the frustration of his on-and-off love interest, the saloon owner Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz). She’s had it with him and she’ll smack him in the face to prove it, but then they’ll start making out again, because love. (Sidebar: “The Harder They Fall” is filled with religious imagery, with crosses appearing in scene after scene.)
In a tightly constructed, expertly rendered and eventually carnage-filled sequence aboard a locomotive, the notorious Rufus Buck, who has been behind bars for years, is liberated by his loyal and lethal gang, including the coldly efficient killer Treacherous Trudy (Regina King), who clearly loves Rufus, and the sharpshooter Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), who is said to be the fastest gun in all the West. When Nat gets word of Rufus Buck’s escape, he assembles a posse of his own to hunt down Rufus, with the gender-fluid Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler), the cocky and flashy gunman James Beckwourth (RJ Cyler), the rifleman Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi) and the federal marshal Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) joining him and Stagecoach Mary.
“The Harder They Fall” devotes equal time to the machinations and adventures of both gangs, adding to the layered complexity of the story and raising the stakes for the inevitable violent confrontation ahead. To be sure, Rufus and his gang are the villains — but it’s not as if Nat and his associates are as pure as the driven snow. Everybody in this story has a past; everybody has blood on their hands.
“The Harder They Fall” is filled with bold and cool creative choices, as when we’re told a neighboring town is “all white” and when Nat and his gang arrive at the town to rob the local bank, it’s literally white — not just the residents, but the buildings, the interiors, you name it … everything is rendered in shades of white. It’s ridiculous and great. Then there’s the soundtrack of the year, which features everything from a remix of Barrington Levy’s seminal reggae tune “Here I Come” to “Let’s Start” by Afrobeat icon Fela Kuti (with Ginger Baker) to a new tune called “Guns Go Bang” from Jay-Z (who is also a producer on the film) and Kid Cudi. This is also a beautifully shot film, with the Cerro Pelon Movie Ranch in Santa Fe, N.M., serving as a primary location. For all of the 21st century, profanity-laced dialogue and the modern music, “The Harder They Fall” still has that wide-open-skies look of a classic Western.
Even with all the shootouts and robberies and action sequences, this is also a wonderful showcase for screen-stealing acting, with virtually everyone in the all-star cast getting some center stage moments and knocking it out of the park. This is one of those movies where we sense the cast had just as much fun making it as we have watching it.