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‘The Harder They Fall’ rides high

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I’ve got a real soft spot for the genre fare of the 1960s and ‘70s. It was a time when filmmakers were really pushing the envelope with regard to the types of stories they were telling and the way in which those stories were told.

I also love it when modern filmmakers revisit that era, when they lift the storytelling and stylistic quirks from their genre (or genres) of choice and incorporate them into the movies they’re making now.

“The Harder They Fall” – directed by Jeymes Samuel – is a delightful mashup of a Western, a kinetic collision of the spaghetti westerns of the ‘60s and the blaxploitation cinema of the ‘70s, with all of it run through a modern (or arguably postmodern) blender. It liberally borrows and embraces aesthetic and thematic touches from a wide assortment of influences – including a number of main characters drawn from actual American history – all in the name of crafting what amounts to a skilled remix of a cowboy movie.

Now, it’s worth noting that this is a Netflix production, so some of the potentially grittier aspects of this particular combination have been sanded down a bit (though not as much as you might expect). It is stylish and violent, packed with outstanding performers and driven by an unabashed confidence.

Seriously – it’s a hell of a time.

In the western territories, a young boy is sitting down to dinner with his parents when a knock comes to the door. A mysterious man enters. The boy’s father demands and then pleads for the lives of his family. The mysterious man guns down the two adults, then has his henchmen hold the boy while the man cuts him with a straight razor.

Years later, that boy has grown up to become the notorious outlaw Nat Love (Jonathan Majors). He has been systematically hunting down the men who were involved in the death of his parents, all of them part of the gang of the even-more-notorious Rufus Buck (Idris Elba); Buck is the only one out of Nat’s reach, as he’s in prison.

Meanwhile, Nat’s gang – specifically, sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi) and quick-draw wunderkind Jim Beckworth (RJ Cyler) – has targeted a rival gang and robbed them after they robbed a bank, stealing the take for themselves. As it turns out, that money was intended for Buck’s operation; this leads to Nat and the rest making their way to the saloon of Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz), who is both a former member of the gang and Nat’s ex-lover. It’s here that Nat is tracked and arrested by Marshal Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), despite the efforts of Nat’s associates and Mary’s bouncer Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler).

As it turns out, the Rufus Buck gang has plans of their own – plans to get their leader out of chains and back into the saddle. These plans are executed by the ruthless Trudy Smith (Regina King) and supposed fastest gun in the West Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield). Said plans lead the gang back to their home base of Redwoods, a small town that had been left in the charge of former associate Wiley Escoe (Deon Cole).

Upon hearing word of Rufus Buck’s return, Nat does everything in his power, enlisting as many allies as he can – friend or foe – in an effort to finally exact the full measure of his revenge against the man who took everything from him. But you don’t survive the frontier without a combination of skill, smarts and luck … and the Rufus Buck gang has survived for a VERY long time.

“The Harder They Fall” makes its intentions known from the very beginning, stating that while the specific events of the film are fiction, the people portrayed absolutely existed. It’s an important note, considering the depth and breadth of the Black experience that is rendered here. It’s easy for us to consider the Wild West as a largely white space – that’s how it has almost exclusively been shown – but in so many ways, it was not. Prominent Black figures littered the landscape … and many of those figures (or versions of them) make appearances here.

It doesn’t hurt that first-time director Samuel clearly delights in paying homage to the kinds of storytelling that best befit a tale of blood and vengeance such as this. Imagine Melvin Van Peebles or Gordon Parks making “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” only with a modern sensibility and Netflix-level resources. He picks and chooses his ingredients carefully, crafting a compelling and entertaining pastiche – great work for a first-time feature director.

(The obvious comparison one could make is to “Django Unchained,” but while Tarantino obviously stands miles apart as a visual stylist and filmmaker, “The Harder They Fall” is much more directly connected to actual history, albeit dramatized. “Django” is the better film, but it’s closer than you might think.)

There’s an engaging viscerality to the proceedings for sure. The filmmakers are unafraid to get explicit with the violence; plenty of people die in ways both quiet and loud and there is a LOT of bloodshed along the way. Fists, guns, knives, explosions – if there’s a way to hurt folks, you likely see it here.

Oh, and this is a phenomenal cast. Majors is ostensibly the star – and he certainly handles his business like a star, mingling anger and effortless charm in a way that makes him a delight to watch. And yet, any time Elba is on screen, you’re reminded of just what a pure force he is; he glowers and smolders with quiet menace and is just magnetic. They’re not alone, either – Regina King is having an absolute blast, all hard edges and meanness. Stanfield is great as the quietly contemplative Cherokee Bill, finding moments of intimacy amidst all the noise. Beetz is great, with a pitch-perfect energy. Gathegi, Cyler, Deadwyler – all fantastic. Oh, and there’s also Delroy Lindo being his typically awesome Delroy Lindo self.

“The Harder They Fall” is a great time, an entertaining mélange of historical figures dropped into ahistorical situations. It is smart and cutting and low-key subversive, even if some of the most pointed aspects were perhaps blunted a bit. So saddle up, because this movie is one hell of a ride.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 08 November 2021 05:46

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