Between this and Da Five Bloods it should just be conventional wisdom that Jonathan Majors and Delroy Lindo are a winning combination no matter what. Especially when backed by a stacked cast of talent including Idris Elba, Regina King, Zazie Beetz and Lakeith Stanfield. Under the direction of singer-songwriter Jeymes Samuel (better known by his stage name ‘The Bullitts’) their combined talents have managed to produce one of the best films of the year, and certainly the best action film. Seamlessly blending classic western conventions with a hip-hop soundtrack and aesthetics to match Samuel takes the ‘Black Western’ to a whole other level.
Opening on a wholesome Western homestead the first thing we see is a ten-year-old Nat Love (portrayed as an adult by Majors); soulful, rambunctious but guided by the morals of his preacher father. All of which is turned for the worst when notorious outlaw Rufus Buck (Elba) shows up on the family’s doorstep. Gunning down Nat’s father and mother and scarring the boy figuratively and literally. Sometime later The Nat Love Gang has built a reputation of its own, ripping off other outlaws to enable Nat’s quest for revenge. When he learns that Buck is soon to be released from prison he teams up with his old partner Stagecoach Mary (Beetz) and the man who brought Buck down in the first place, Marshall Bass Reeves (Lindo). Leading his gang towards an action-packed showdown.
If some of these names are leaping out at you, well done. The majority of The Harder They Fall’s characters are based off actual historical figures from the American Old West. People whose stories have typically been denied the big screen treatment because…well guess. The Harder They Fall then is nothing short of a two-hour corrective to Hollywood’s failure to do these characters justice. Imbuing almost all of them with a richness and flavour that’s irresistible to watch.
Every line of dialogue, every word from these character’s mouths is laden with idiosyncratic style and tone. From King’s Nigerian staccato to Majors’ cocksure swagger. It gives each character an edge to their actions, making every moment utterly compelling to watch. We’ve seen hyper-violent Westerns before, but never life this. Six shooters echo like cannon fire and knuckle-dusters land like the hammer of Thor. It’s almost cartoonish with its crimson blood splatter, only grounded by the sheer pathos in the individual performances.
The Harder They Fall makes for an incredibly fun watch with its clear, stylish action. The characters crack wise and Samuels knows how to cut a good gag (an often overlooked skill) but when the stakes are raised the atmosphere drops. Death has a real weight and meaning to these character, made all the more devastating by how much their personality (no pun intended) colours the film. You’re laughing along with them right until the end.
The plotting certainly leaves something to be desired. Despite its progressive depiction of women of colour Samuels is disapprovingly quick to make Stagecoach Mary a damsel in distress. A contrivance that necessitates a last-minute detour of a bank robbery in a white town (which the subtitles will amusingly remind you of). Fun to watch certainly, but with the unavoidable feeling of stalling for time. Of course Buck and Love could not have their climactic showdown without some grand revelation about the reason for gunning down Love’s parents. It touches upon deeper themes of the impossibility of redemption but is too hastily tacked on to feel effective.
However these feel like minor gripes against something so riotous and well-executed. The Harder They Fall may not pick up any awards for Best Screenplay (though Best Score and Editing deserve to be in play) but it stands out as one of the most charming, sexy, and exhilarating experiences on a London Film Festival. Certainly not one to miss.