The action and wit in the revenge Western The Harder They Fall entertains even when the storyline meanders.
Staring: Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, Lakeith Stanfield, RJ Cyler, Danielle Deadwyler, Edi Gathegi, and Deon Cole
Directed by: Jeymes Samuel
Real people serve as the inspiration for the characters in The Harder They Fall, the film tells us at the very start, just after it clarifies that the events we are about to watch are actually fictional. It’s a dichotomous introduction, one that intrigues as much as it frustrates. People who bore the same names as these characters did exist, and they were clearly fascinating enough to merit a mention in history. But these characters aren’t those people. At all, in some cases. And we aren’t about to learn their actual stories. Make of that what you will.
Regardless though, the Netflix Western – led by an all-Black cast, a rarity for the genre – tells the (entirely made-up) tale of two opposing gangs. One is led by Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), an outlaw who robs other bank robbers, but whose main goal in life is to avenge the death of his parents by exterminating the men who killed them. His final and primary target is Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), the leader of the rival gang, who has just been released, rather circuitously, from prison.
It takes over two hours for us to arrive at the inevitable final confrontation between these two men. In between, we witness – among other things – the introductions and exploits of their various associates. These include Love’s cohorts, including his paramour Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), cocky fast-draw prodigy Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler), the fierce Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler), and marshal Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), as well as Buck’s gang members, like the ruthless Trudy Smith (Regina King) and famed quick-draw Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield).
The various detours can, at times, start to feel a little meandering but they are generally wrapped in enough action and wit to remain entertaining nonetheless. Each of the sequences is generally well-crafted and often very well-shot, even if the pieces don’t always feel essential to the bigger picture.
The cast, of course, is stellar. From the inimitable Idris Elba and a scene stealing Lakeith Stanfield to the wonderful Zazie Beetz and Regina King, the performances are terrific, while Jonathan Majors helms the action impressively throughout. And the fact that this is one of the few Westerns where the principal cast members are all African-American makes the effort even more significant.
On the whole, The Harder They Fall makes for an entertaining viewing even if it doesn’t tell us who the people behind these characters really were and what actually went down in history. The many subplots combined with its uneven pace and lengthy runtime do sometimes get in the way of a crisp, cohesive narrative, but the competent direction and impressive performances ensure that you stay invested in the drama from start to finish.
Rating system: *Not on your life * ½ If you really must waste your time ** Hardly worth the bother ** ½ Okay for a slow afternoon only
*** Good enough for a look see *** ½ Recommended viewing **** Don’t miss it **** ½ Almost perfect ***** Perfection