The Quick and the Stylish
Part of the reason I was so down on Eternals last week was because I saw another movie that same weekend that absolutely blew Marvel’s latest out of the water with a far more limited budget from the mind of a freshman film director. Coming to us from the mind of Jeymes Samuel, AKA The Bullitts, we have a new entry in the bog standard Western genre with the unique twist that the principal cast members are all Black thespians portraying real-life Wild West legends. And you know what? It kicked about 20 kinds of ass.
The Harder They Fall has a purely fictional story despite featuring many real-life legends as its main characters, but the movie acknowledges this fact in the first few seconds of the movie. We primarily follow Nat Love (Jonathan Majors fresh off Loki and Lovecraft Country), an outlaw seeking revenge against Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) for killing his parents and physically (as well as mentally) scaring Love for life. Joining Love on his quest for vengeance are Zazie Beetz as Stagecoach Mary, Delroy Lindo as Bass Reeves, RJ Cyler as Jim Beckwourth, Edi Gathegi as Bill Pickett, and Danielle Deadwyle as Cuffee (based on Cathay Williams). Backing Rufus Buck are Regina King as Trudy Smith and Lakeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill. A parade of Western clichés ensues bolstered by some damn fine writing and an abundance of stylish presentation.
That might sound like I’m damning with faint praise, but it’s meant to be a compliment first and foremost. See, the reason why the Western genre has been comatose for so many years was because we had literal decades of these movies exploring every possible revenge fantasy that could be conceived to have taken place in the American West. The story is not the reason this film succeeds at all, it’s simply a comfortable template for a filmmaker to experiment with far more devious ideas of portraying intense action and thrilling drama with as much pomp and flair as could be portrayed.
The film simply feels alive with color and bombast as you go from scene to scene, coupled with some gorgeous cinematography and your occasional fun out-of-place shot. Meanwhile, the action feels intense as the bullets fly and people beat the ever loving stuffing out of each other. Nobody is safe here, men and women alike bleed like there’s no tomorrow as if everybody came down with a nasty case of hemophilia. And the camera quite appropriately gets you into the action by knowing when to pull back to see people kick another’s teeth in and when to zoom around as guns are fired off in a bullet fiesta. But most vitally, you care when protagonist and antagonist alike either bite the dust or suffer a grievous wound.
The script courtesy of Jeymes Samuel and Boaz Yakin is simply dripping with choice one-liners and thoughtful monologues alike. You get a strong sense of exactly who each character is supposed to be without falling back on ridiculous stereotypes or archetypes. Further, each character is portrayed by a compelling thespian giving it their all to bring them to life. It’s so hard to pick out a favorite here, do I go with Jonathan Majors astounding me once again with an emotionally raw performance at the end to mark a succession of leading man scenes where he’s such a magnetic presence? Do I go heap more praise on to Idris Elba who’s already having a solid year with The Suicide Squad and this where he portrays a villain with far more going on? Or perhaps Zazie Beetz who’s always a solid actress but has finally appeared in a production worth her immense talents (unlike the pathetic Geostorm or Joker). I mean you can’t go wrong with Regina King either, who weaves a chilling monologue halfway through the movie that’s equal parts tragic and terrifying. Oh Hell, I can’t even forget Lekith Stanfield who kept stealing the show whenever he’s on screen with his too-goddamn-cool-for-school attitude even in the face of a dozen people who badly want to kill him.
I mean, you are spoiled for choice here in terms of memorable performances this ensemble. Everybody brings their A-game, even the bit players like Delroy Lindo and Danielle Deadwyler (as well as RJ Cyler and Edi Gathegi who I swear I’m not ignoring). Complimenting all these fine performances is a fun soundtrack of hip-hop beats that feels comfortable and never out of place as I would expect such an anachronism to jar me. It’s simply because we are dealing with larger than life characters all engaged in balls-to-the-wall action that of course listening to such songs in the Wild West feels right at home.
I’m seriously struggling to find complaints to make aside from the fact that the story is pretty bog-standard. But as I said, a simple story can easily be forgiven when everything else is firing off with as much energy as this film is bringing to the table. And in many ways, the simple story allows you to explore more complex themes that the film introduces…but doesn’t necessarily build upon. There’s a fascinating tragedy as Elba’s Rufus Buck struggles to keep his all-Black town financially afloat and to allow its citizens the freedom from living in an oppressive White town at the cost of dealing with a ruthless tyrant in Buck. But the film simply uses it as a plot point to explain why our likable protagonist must perform a crime he has been noted to avoid performing, and that aspect of the story is not given a proper weight. Speaking of which, Nat Love’s relentless pursuit of revenge does end on a poignant and I daresay surprising note, but I simultaneously felt the film could have built up the emotional drama to afford its proper narrative weight. At the same time though, that could have cut into many a scene that I’m seriously loathe to drop or increase this film’s runtime.
But that’s the thing, at a hefty runtime of two hours and fifteen minutes, I barely felt the length of this film. This pulpy roller coaster ride kept me enthused throughout, so the fact I was seeking even more of a great thing that The Harder They Fall already delivers upon is worth a high rating even on its worst day. This and The Suicide Squad are really the only two films of 2021 that gave me any sense of excitement from a year that delivered a ton of heavyweight blockbusters. As such, I got to give this an absurdly high…