4 out of 5 stars

The Harder They Fall begins with an extended prologue featuring the origin story of our main character, real-life cowboy Nat Love, suffering a great, impactful loss at the hands of Rufus Buck. This opening signifies two things: one, that this story’s going to hew closely to the classic western outlines of the past; and two, that this film won’t lack for style.

Jeymes Samuel’s feature-length debut trots out every western trope in the book, taking audiences on a journey as natural as leading a horse to water. But even if the story plays out in an overly familiar way, Samuel’s assured sense of confidence in his abilities, and in the abilities of his top-notch ensemble, carries the movie to great heights.

A singer-songwriter, producer, and director of short films and music videos, Samuel got his start in the film industry as the executive music producer for Baz Lurhmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby (2013). He brings that music video flare to The Harder They Fall, filling it with zooming cameras, movie star closeups, and sweeping vistas. The movie lands somewhere between the operatic revenge tale of a Sergio Leone western and the knowing, pop-western sensibilities of Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead (1995).

The film centers on Nat Love (The Underground Railroad’s Chase Dillon in the opening flashback; Jonathan Majors henceforth), but the all-black ensemble cast is game for this film’s freewheeling tone, with most of them getting their own dramatic introduction. These actors all elevate the movie beyond a stylish, loving homage to classic westerns and into a film focused on upending genre conventions.

Love’s gang is made up of a loyal group of famous real-life outlaws, all of which come together to help Love track down Buck. His two immediate confidants, Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) and Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), quickly establish themselves as the movie’s comedic odd couple. This duo enters the story while robbing a group of bank robbers (led by Damon Wayans Jr.), which sets the film’s present-day plot in motion. I’ve always been a fan of Cyler, and he comes through here, stealing scenes left and right in a movie full of award-winners. Ever since his quick but riveting appearance in Gone Baby Gone (2007), Gathegi’s also been a welcome addition anywhere. He provides a sense of pathos to this colorful collection of characters. Love’s gang also features the widely-known Stagecoach Mary (Deadpool 2′s Zazie Beetz), a self-made business owner who operates the saloon in town.

The film opens up with an intriguing scrawl: “While the events of this story are fictional… These. People. Existed.” The indication is that, although the tale involving these real-life celebrities from the Old West is a tall one, Samuel seeks to firmly place these people in the correct context historically. This is to say these people indeed existed, even if most Hollywood Westerns said otherwise.

Love’s gang is rounded out by a pair of traditionally opposite characters and actors. Cuffee (Danielle Dedywler), Beetz’ right-hand woman (even if it takes some of the other characters a while to realise) makes for a tough, steadfast companion. Deadwyler, whose previous credits consist mostly of TV shows, gives a standout performance in some of her first big-screen action. The gang is joined by law enforcement officer Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo’s), with the actor reunited with his Da 5 Bloods (2020) co-star Majors in another Netflix production, and giving Reeves a world-weary, seen-it-all presence.

The opposing faction is led by cutthroat Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). In a truly satisfying sequence, Trudy Smith (Regina King), one of the few fully fictitious characters in the film, and Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield) are introduced as they attempt to break Buck out of a train car full of soldiers in a scene that recalls Leone’s classic Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). King’s role isn’t as showy as some of the others, but she does get to employ an accent and some brutal fighting skills. Stanfield, meanwhile, plays the sharp-shooting Cherokee Bill as the diametric opposite to Cyler’s fellow quick draw specialist—quiet, calculating, and a little odd.

It’s a western, so obviously these two crews are going to face off. And when they do, Samuel delivers. For a first-time director (of a major film at least), Samuel has a sure hand when it comes to set-pieces. The gunshots are explosive, the impacts are bloody, and the action is propulsive. The action sequences harken back to a number of great westerns: the aforementioned Leone movies, My Darling Clementine (1946), Tombstone (1993), even No Country For Old Men (2007). This movie’s awareness expands the entire history of the genre, from the earliest John Ford classics to the present day. And in doing so, it proclaims loudly that these characters should have been here all along.

Majors is working at the top of his game throughout, but he really solidifies his performance with an array of emotions on display during the film’s last third. The inevitable showdown between Majors’ Love and Elba’s Buck eschews the expected popcorn trappings to a devastating effect. I could watch either of them read a phone book.

The Harder They Fall sings when its talented ensemble gets together for scenes big and small. The screenplay isn’t perfect, as the story could’ve played out a little smoother, but Samuel is a genuine talent and he’s assembled a dynamite group of actors. If these are the types of films Netflix will now fund moving forward—exciting, movie-star-laden outings from directors with a vision—then sign me up!

USA | 2021 | 137 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Jeymes Samuel
writers: Jeymes Samuel & Boaz Yakin (story by Jeymes Samuel).
starring: Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, Lakeith Stanfield, RJ Cyler, Danielle Deadwyler, Edi Gathegi & Deon Cole.