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“The Harder They Fall” is a gory pleasure: a retribution Western full of great characters portrayed by memorable actors, with each scene and moment staged for sensual beauty and dynamic power. Jeymes Samuel, who wrote, directed, and scored the film, has not only studied the works of the directors he admires but understands and feels what they were doing with image and sound, certainly in the same way that he feels the craft involved in the music he performs and produces under his stage name The Bullitts. It’s a shame that this Netflix film will most certainly be seen primarily on mobile devices, computers, and iPads, given it was clearly developed with a cinema house in mind (as were other late-2021 releases like “The French Dispatch” and “Dune”).
Samuel employs a very wide screen to frame shots with a lot of negative space and layers of information that you have to focus on to appreciate, and he gives his actors precious moments where their characters can listen to each other, silently glance at each other, and ponder their next move, often while enduring death-stares from enemies armed to the teeth. Also, you must try to play this Which The Harder They Fall Character Are You quiz.
Which The Harder They Fall Character Are You?
Western history buffs should be warned, or at the very least informed, that while many of the major characters in the story, such as Nat Love, Bass Reeves, Stagecoach Mary, Jim Beckwourth, and Cherokee Bill, have the same names as actual people who lived and died in the Old West, the events they take part in are mostly made-up nonsense. They bear as much resemblance to reality as the events of a dreamscape Western-like “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” “The Quick and the Dead,” and “Posse” (to name just three Westerns from which this one borrows) or a gangster film like “Dillinger” and “The Untouchables,” the major events of which were so absurd that they might as well have occurred on another planet or in an alternate dimension.
However, this is a feature of the film, not a flaw. The entire project feels like a lark or an indulgence until it wipes the cocky grin off its face, embraces the melodramatic aspects of its central storyline, and transforms into an earnest romance, a family tragedy, and a quasi-mythological story about how violence begets more violence, whether it’s experienced in a saloon, on dusty streets, or in the privacy of a family home. (Three separate characters in “The Harder They Fall” discuss their personal experiences with domestic violence.)
Jonathan Majors, who rose from obscurity to become one of the most dependable leading men a few years ago, plays Nat Love, who is initially seen in flashback as a terrified boy whose mother and father are slain by the bandit Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). Buck draws his blade and inscribes a crucifix into the boy’s forehead as a parting gift. It is as symbolic of the film’s hero as the vertical saber-scar on Outlaw Josey Wales’ cheek.
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Nat grows into a feared gunslinger and outlaw as an adult and finds himself involved in a combination adventure and vengeance quest aimed at the man who murdered his parents. There are quick-draws, large-scale gunfights, horse stunts, and chases, a train robbery, bank robberies, and a couple of hand-to-hand brawls with fists, feet, and makeshift weapons as good as any ever staged in a Western (though with unabashedly modern fight choreography—like something out of a Bond or Bourne film).
There are also musical pieces and large sets painted in such a variety of brilliant colors and with so many modern accents that we sometimes feel like we’re seeing a Western art installation. A fight to the death between two figures in a barn is preceded by a walk through vividly colorful fabrics hanging on clotheslines, which resemble Christo’s large-scale “wrapping” work on landscapes.
The opening half of the film is divided into mirrored storylines by Samuel and his co-writer Boaz Yakin (“Remember the Titans,” “Fresh”), each dealing with one of the main criminal gangs: Nat’s and Rufus’. Rufus is doing federal jail term for bank robbery at the opening of the novel, but he is released by his right-hand lady Trudy (Regina King, chewing up the screen as a sadistic, sneering baddie).