Review: ‘The Harder They Fall’ is stylish neo-western starring hidden figures of Old West

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'The Harder They Fall'

If you wondered what the next evolution of the genre might look like after Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and Quentin Tarantino’s cinephile homages, hold onto your saddle.

Filmmaker Jeymes Samuel crafts a rip-roaring ride in “The Harder They Fall,” packed with Black Hollywood icons spitting the fastest dialogue in the west for brash entertainment that is probably more style than substance, but is so much damn fun that we don’t even care.

The film opens with a defiant line of text: “While the events of this story are fictional…These. People. Existed.” We then take a bloody dive into the story of Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), who arrives in Douglastown seeking revenge against a brutal outlaw named Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), the man who murdered his family and carved a cross into his forehead.

After his breakout in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” Majors might have seemed too gentle for a desperado, but “Lovecraft Country” boosted him to genre action superstar. He more than fills the boots, believable during shootouts, charismatic robbing banks, and romantic with sassy brothel owner Stagecoach Mary, played by Zazie Beetz (“Nine Days”).

His nemesis, Elba, makes a killer faceless entrance that ultimately wraps around to reveal human motivations. It’s one of Elba’s most vicious roles, less a cerebral gangster like Stringer Bell and more a ferocious carnivore like Shere Khan. He looks comfortable in a stetson after “Concrete Cowboy,” as Buck trades striped prison garb for a red velvet jacket.

His two dynamite henchmen are Lakeith Stanfield (“Get Out”) as undefeated gunslinger Cherokee Bill and Regina King (“Watchmen”) as badass bandit “Treacherous” Trudy Smith. They get the best dialogue, written by Samuel and Boaz Yakin (“Remember the Titans”). When a train conductor is about to call her the “n” word, she blasts his mouth shut.

“He coulda called you a nincompoop,” Stanfield quips.

“We ain’t no nincompoop,” King retorts.

Note that the train is labeled “C.A. Boseman” in tribute to the late Chadwick Aaron Boseman. His Spike Lee co-star Delroy Lindo (“Da 5 Bloods”) plays Bass Reeves, Danielle Deadwyler (“P-Valley”) is Cuffee, Edi Gathegi (“Twilight”) is Bill Pickett, RJ Cyler (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) is Jim Beckworth and Deon Cole (“Black-ish”) is Wiley Escoe.

At times, the grinning face of Damon Wayans Jr. (“New Girl”) nearly veers the film into “Blazing Saddles” territory, but this isn’t some spoof of a western. It’s a flashy attempt to show hidden figures of the Wild West with brutal violence between the comedic asides.

After his directorial debut “They Die By Dawn,” Samuel pulls out all the stops with Leone-style freeze frames as the title appears on screen like “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.” Split-screens show action on both sides of a locked door, while high-angle shots show the characters’ tall shadows stretching across the ground as larger-than-life mythic figures.

He repeatedly uses controlled bursts of incremental camera moves. The camera pushes forward in Mary’s P.O.V. one step at a time. It looks down on Cuffee, pushing in closer each time she fires duel revolvers. It shows a cocky hero, then slides to reveal a villain behind him with a gun, then slides again to reveal an ally holding the villain at gunpoint.

The most extravagant move starts over Elba’s shoulder as he gazes out of a second-story window over the western town, only for the camera to move “through” the glass window and glide all the way across the town into a close-up on Majors sitting on his horse. The elaborate long take is not just for show, it visually ties the characters together for a reason.

The camerawork is layered with a catchy soundtrack from Barrington Levy, Lauryn Hill, Kid Cudi, JAY-Z, CeeLo Green, Seal, Koffee, Alice Smith, Fisk Jubilee Singers, Dennis Brown, Pretty Yende, Laura Mvula, Mayra Andrade, Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Ginger Baker for a blend of reggae and hip-hop that you don’t usually hear galloping across western vistas.

The fiery music and booming gun blasts will no doubt sound better on a cineplex speaker system, so here are the select D.C. area movie theaters showing the film this weekend:

  • Bow Tie Reston Town Center – Reston, Virginia
  • Cinemark Fairfax Corner – Fairfax, Virginia
  • Cinepolis – Gaithersburg, Maryland
  • iPic Pike and Rose – Bethesda, Maryland
  • Xscape Brandywine – Brandywine, Maryland

If you’re not ready to return to the theater, you can wait for Netflix on Nov. 3. Just make sure you hide the remote. Clocking in at 2 1/2 hours, the runtime will feel even longer if you keep hitting the pause button due to various interruptions of home. There are so many characters, so much violence and so many moving pieces that it’s best in one sitting.

Either way, it will spark your curiosity to explore Google rabbit holes researching the real Nat Love, who was born to enslaved parents on a Tennessee plantation, and the real Rufus Buck, whose multi-racial gang of outlaws were part African American and part Creek Indian. Then ask yourself: why are these names not well-known like Jesse James?

These. People. Existed.

4 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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