In the last 30 years, audiences have watched a great number of filmmakers take inspiration from the visceral and genre-loving style of Quentin Tarantino, and the results have been… mixed. There’s an entire subsection of modern hitman movies, for example, that are just all kinds of bad, and it’s in part because of a misapplication or corruption of Tarantino’s filmmaking voice. Conversely, there are other titles that find their own special ways to translate it, using it as a kind of starting point in the larger aim of creating something unique. The Harder They Fall is a star-studded western that falls into the latter category, unfolding as an exciting, history-bending adventure, and revealing writer/director Jeymes Samuel as a talent to watch.
Featuring an ensemble of characters who are real historical figures, and utilizing them in a wholly fictional plot, The Harder They Fall has the vibe of “Django Unchained meets Inglourious Basterds,” and successfully crafts a gripping and thrilling story of rival gangs and vengeance in the Old West. There are moments that don’t quite flow as well as they should, but still it ultimately proves wonderful ground for Samuel to demonstrate his talent as a filmmaker, and for Jonathan Majors and LaKeith Stanfield in particular to continue proving themselves as outrageously gifted performers.
Majors stars in the film as Nat Love, an outlaw who has spent the majority of his life pursuing revenge against the Rufus Buck Gang: the men responsible for murdering his parents (Michael Beach, Sadiqua Bynum) in cold blood when he was a child. At the start of the movie he successfully guns down the last free man on his list, and, believing his work is done, he goes to be with Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), the woman he loves. What changes everything, however, is a visit from marshal Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), who delivers him the terrible news that Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) himself is being released from prison.
Enraged by the news, but also unable to ignore the opportunity to exterminate the man who killed his mother and father, Nat Love agrees to team up with Reeves, and together they set off to the Rufus Buck-controlled Redwood City for a confrontation. This turn of events doesn’t quite sit well with the members of the Nat Love Gang, though, and thus the outlaw and the lawman are joined in the mission by the shotgun-wielding Stagecoach Mary, practiced sniper Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), quick draw artist Jim Beckworth (RJ Cyler), and the young and impetuous Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler).
It is help that the hero definitely needs, as not only is Rufus Buck an ice cold monster, but he is supported by “Treacherous” Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), the man rumored to be the fastest gun in the West.
The Harder They Fall has a fantastic blend of tones, succeeding in being both dark and violent and laugh-out-loud funny.
The Harder They Fall grips you from the outset with darkness, as a prologue opening sequence sees Rufus Buck and his men kill Nat Love’s parents and carve a cross into the young boy’s forehead – but it’s impressive how in the immediate aftermath the movie is able to change gears to a moment of gleeful retribution where Nat as an adult checks a name off his list. It’s indicative of the film’s whole energy, as it can be grim and serious when it wants to be, but mostly it is a wild and fun ride.
There is a bit of a hitch in the second act (there is a subplot that sees Stagecoach Mary abducted, and it feels included simply to move the story forward), but mostly the film plays out with smooth pacing and smart storytelling. Near equal prominence is given to both the Nat Love Gang and the Rufus Buck Gang, and it’s impressive just how well the movie is able to string together memorable sequences as it goes back and forth – including a fantastic train robbery that results in Rufus’ liberation, and Nat and his friends visiting the literally white town of Maysville. It’s all built on strong character development, which is executed by an awesome ensemble.
Jonathan Majors and LaKeith Stanfield both continue to prove themselves as phenomenal talents.
There’s a full shower of compliments that can be poured on every single member of the cast in The Harder They Fall, as Idris Elba is brilliantly menacing, Zazie Beetz oozes cool, and RJ Cyler whips up wonderful energy in all of his scenes, but walking away from the movie you just can’t help but be utterly impressed by the work from Jonathan Majors and LaKeith Stanfield. The secret is definitely already out on just how ridiculously talented the two of them are, but here they are just charisma machines, and able to wield their individual powers in very different ways.
There is a spectacular range that Majors showcases as Nat Love, as the cowboy is primarily an affable, Robin Hood-esque outlaw with a delightful spirit – but he is also single-minded when it comes to the business of vengeance. The actor is perfection in both modes, and genuine in every moment, making him a wonderful and captivating on-screen presence.
That magnetism is matched by LaKeith Stanfield, but it’s particularly fascinating to see him wield it while playing a villain. When the two narratives are playing out in parallel and Cherokee Bill is operating among the Rufus Buck Gang, you can’t help but marvel at his swagger and skill, and you love watching him work – but that all changes when it comes time for confrontation with the heroes, and the switch in the dynamic is brilliant.
The Harder They Fall is not just an awesome western, but a badass action flick.
The Harder They Fall would be entertaining if it were merely about these groups of characters arguing in a debate hall, but the cherry on top are the action sensibilities on display. The film is (realistically) an extremely bloody affair, and Jeymes Samuel demonstrates an excellent eye capturing it. There are high points throughout, but the grand showdown in the third act is where the best meat is, and genre fans will revel in it.
From its creative use of historical figures, to its flashy style, to its phenomenal ensemble, The Harder They Fall is a movie that is eye-opening in many ways. Given the right opportunities, Jeymes Samuel is going to have a very bright future ahead of him, and whether that means getting to make a sequel (which the ending clearly sets up) or venturing into wholly different territory, it will be exciting to see where he goes next.