You can’t ask for a more stylish western than THE HARDER THEY FALL (2021), a new Netflix movie by writer/director/singer/songwriter Jeymes Samuel, but in spite of all the bells and whistles, its story is all rather ordinary, and as a result, this well-made actioner didn’t move me as much as I thought it would.
That’s not to say THE HARDER THEY FALL isn’t entertaining. It is. Director Jeymes Samuel holds nothing back here. His kinetic directorial style using everything from oversized captions to extreme close-ups, as well as colorful, brilliant cinematography, and hard, brutal and bloody violence, reminded me a lot of the classic Spaghetti Westerns of yesteryear, films directed by Sergio Leone and oftentimes starring Clint Eastwood. The only thing missing is a music score by Ennio Morricone.
Of course, THE HARDER THEY FALL has its own signature music score, by songwriter/director Jeymes Samuel, and like most of this movie, it works wonderfully. The only thing lacking in this movie is a compelling storyline, which is something it almost has, but just falls short.
THE HARDER THEY FALL is about two rival black gangs in the old west. Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) is an outlaw who robs other outlaws. He also spends his time hunting down the gang members who murdered his mother and father in front of him when he was only ten years old. The gang leader who gunned down his parents, Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) is in prison, but when his gang breaks him out of his confinement on a train, Love decides it’s time to take him down. And the two ruthless gangs head on a collision course to see who will ultimately survive.
As plots go, this one is okay. The problem is the film doesn’t do the best job of building suspense or excitement as Love closes in on Buck, and when they finally do meet, it’s somewhat of a disappointment. The film’s ultimate conclusion includes a telling reveal, which is one of the best parts of this otherwise ordinary story, but after a slew of violent scenes and fights, the ending just doesn’t generate the nail biting tension one would expect.
I remember being on edge for much of Quentin Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012). I was never on edge while watching THE HARDER THEY FALL.
Jonathan Majors is very good as Nat Love. He gives Love a quiet disposition which makes the character a thoughtful outlaw and one who has earned his followers’ respect. He’s also as tough as nails, and there’s little doubt that he’s up to the task of taking down a larger than life villain like Rufus Buck.
As that larger than life villain Rufus Buck, Idris Elba does what he always does, which is deliver a solid performance and make his character believable. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t really allow for Elba to do as much as he can do, and his best scene sadly is his last one. The film focuses more on Nat Love than Rufus Buck, and so Elba, while he does get plenty of screen time, doesn’t get to really dominate this movie like he is capable of doing. Elba fared better in the recent DC superhero movie THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021) as that script allowed him to work at his full potential.
Zazie Beetz is spirited and tough as Mary Fields, the woman in Nat Love’s life, and a valued member of his gang. Regina King is equally as spirited and tough as Trudy Smith, the woman in Rufus Buck’s life. Their climactic fight scene is one of the best scenes in the movie. In fact, I’d argue that it’s a more riveting sequence than the confrontation between Love and Buck.
Also standing out is LaKeith Stanfield as Cherokee Bill, the fastest gun in Buck’s camp. Stanfield delivers a terrific performance, as he did in the recent JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (2021), where he played Bill O’Neal.
Delroy Lindo also turns in a commanding performance as Marshall Bass Reeves, a nice follow-up to his strong performance in Spike Lee’s DA 5 BLOODS (2020).
I also enjoyed R J Cyler as Jim Beckworth, Edi Gathegi as Bill Pickett, and Danielle Deadwyler as Cuffee, three other members of Love’s gang. Each of these folks have distinctive personalities which makes them all very watchable.
And all of these characters by the way are based on real people. As the opening subtitles state, the story is fiction, but the people actually existed.
For the most part I liked THE HARDER THEY FALL. Its energetic lively style is infectious, so it’s difficult not to enjoy this one. However, it’s unable to lift its standard plot into anything special or memorable, so at times, even with its stylized violence and notable characters and strong performances, it doesn’t resonate any deeper than a glorified music video.
And at two hours and ten minutes, that’s a long music video.
To be fair, THE HARDER THEY FALL has its moments, and there are times where it is spot on and does resonate. But there simply aren’t a lot of these moments.
Not enough for me to fall hard for this one.