“While the events of this story are fictional … These. People. Existed.” It’s this text that opens The Harder They Fall, providing an intriguing setup with some bold punctuation. It’s as if it were taking its cue from this historical western fantasia’s own disorienting stop-and-go rhythm. When the outlaw Nat Love (a sly Jonathan Majors) settles a score in the film’s opening moments, he shoots his man four times which in hand delivers four blood-spattered freeze-frames, each one bearing a word from the movie’s title. For dramatic purposes, Nat is the most significant of those fact-based, fictionalized gunslingers, a black cowboy legend who was born to enslaved parents on a Tennessee plantation in 1854. But playing fast and loose with history, British writer-director Jeymes Samuel and co-writer, Boaz Yakin, have given their Nat a very different if still traumatic origin story. As a young boy, he loses his family in brutal fashion, setting the story’s long-growing revenge plot in motion; years later, he and his trusty gang find themselves tracking his parents’ assassin, the vicious outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). Rufus runs with a gang of his own, only one that’s bigger, nastier and filled with more Hollywood heavy-hitters.
Not that The Harder They Fall is generally lacking in celebrity. Its sprawling ensemble sets up a dazzling standoff between established stars and stars in the making. Lakeith Stanfield brings a silkiness as Cherokee Bill, the quickest of quick-draw artists. Regina King rocks a nice bowler hat as “Treacherous Trudy” Smith, who’s not much slower. As the heads of the Rufus Buck Gang, they’re a strong pair, with a bad-cop/badder-cop routine that’s good for a few queasy chuckles before the killing starts. Their enemies on the Nat Love Gang side include the Jim Beckwourth (R.J. Cyler), who shoots almost as well as he runs his mouth, and who maintains a nicely bickering rapport with trusty comrade Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi). A determined Zazie Beetz plays Stagecoach Mary, who in real life was the first black woman to work for the U.S. Postal Service; here she’s been squeezed into the less interesting role of Nat’s love interest. Another real-life pioneer is the deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, though his accomplishments are more hinted at than expounded on in Delroy Lindo’s growl of a performance.
According to an oft-cited statistic, about one out of every four cowboys in the post-Civil War era was black, something many probably don’t know by the many Westerns they’ve consumed over the years. And, in various ways, what The Harder They Fall strives to do with the 19th-century Western is to pick up the long, rich and frequently obscured threads of black history and restore them, by imaginative means if necessary, to a genre from which they have been summarily removed. Vengeance may drive this movie’s narrative engine, but Samuel is after another kind of cinematic restoration. Fans of this gleefully ahistorical revisionism may detect the superficial influence of Quentin Tarantino in Samuel’s fondness for banter and rhythms. But the controversy and skepticism that have greeted Tarantino’s powder-keg treatment of race are unlikely to surface here. Unlike, say, Django Unchained, The Harder They Fall makes not even the barest of narrative glimpses to whiteness; set well after the abolition of slavery, it treats its white characters not as villains but brief non-entities.
Making his feature directing debut, Samuel actually appears most comfortable when mimicking a different set of influences, such as the spaghetti and revisionist Westerns: overlong credits with a theme song and gunshot sound effects; big close-ups of badmen with ugly teeth; zooms; slow motion; Morricone-esque inflections in the score. Yet so much of it still feels rather contemporary, evident most in the bright, at times displeasing digital sheen of Mihai Mälaimare Jr.’s cinematography and the wide-ranging musical touches of the film’s several well-chosen Afro-Caribbean and hip-hop songs of the soundtrack. Nonetheless, the film, as a whole, is tonally all over the map. There are, as mentioned, some songs, as well as gags that really wouldn’t be out of place in a Mel Brooks parody. At one point, a character warns Love that the bank he’s planning to hold up is in “a white town,” only for the next cut to reveal a town square that is actually painted all white.
This kind of offbeat sensibility is in most cases a welcome thing; it makes The Harder They Fall best when taken at a moment-to-moment basis. If only the movie was as good as its intentions, strong enough to carry it over its patchy stretches and lapses in momentum, the plodding pace and leaden attempts at drama; there’s not one, but two different extended monologues about a villain’s childhood, delivered by different villains. The reason I haven’t really discussed the plot is mainly to avoid duplicating the movie’s own mistake, as it plays like a jam-up of familiar set-pieces — an epic train robbery, a few bank holdups and several bloody street fights en route to a climactic shootout — that complicate the surface of a fairly simple, even simplistic, gang-vs.-gang setup. And with so many real-life figures jostling for attention, the departures from the historical record, rather than liberating the movie’s imagination, wind up feeling oddly arbitrary. Surely the truth (or something close to it) of who these men and women were must have been more fascinating, and more worth mythologizing, than what transpires in this strained mashup. With intriguing intentions and sparks of occasionally stylistic verve to spare, The Harder They Fall ultimately crumbles with its clunky rhythms and misshapen tone.
The Harder They Fall is available to stream on Netflix