Gleefully violent and hyper-stylish but ultimately empty and overlong, The Harder They Fall ultimately manages only to trade in well-worn tropes and clichés.
The Harder They Fall begins with a bold proclamation — large type, all-caps letters that fill the screen declaring “THESE PEOPLE WERE REAL.” It’s not exactly a bait-and-switch, but it’s odd nonetheless, as The Harder They Fall bears virtually no resemblance to any known reality, instead playing with and indulging in myriad well-worn tropes and clichés. This kind of self-aware, meta-textual invoking of a classic genre is all good and well, but at a massive 140 minutes, the effort wears out its welcome long before the end credits roll. The Harder They Fall has assembled a remarkable cast, and it gives them very little of interest to actually do.
The film’s excessively busy screenplay (credited to director Jeymes “The Bullitts” Samuel and Boaz Yakin, himself a mildly interesting filmmaker) involves almost a dozen major characters and all manner of narrative detours and curlicues. Beginning with a brief prologue in which a man with matching gold revolvers murders a young boy’s parents, then carves a cross into the boy’s forehead, the film jumps ahead 20-odd years and immediately finds Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) gunning down a bad guy posing as a priest. Love is of course the young boy from the prologue, all grown up and finally done seeking vengeance for his parents’ murder (or so he believes). Only one outlaw remains, the nefarious Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) — he of the golden guns — who is tucked away in prison serving a life sentence. The film proceeds to laboriously introduce the remainder of its sprawling ensemble, including Trudy (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), both part of Buck’s crew, as well as Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), who shares a romantic past with Love. Mary runs her own saloon now, along with her right-hand woman Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler). There’s also brothers Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) and Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), part of Love’s gang who rob outlaws of their ill-gotten gains. It’s when Beckwourth and Pickett rob a group of bandits that the main plot is put in motion — the loot was going to the recently-freed Buck, who needs it to maintain ownership of a small town that he commands like his own personal fiefdom. Once Love learns that Buck is back on the scene, he plots an attempt to exact his final vengeance. Buck in turn kidnaps Stagecoach Mary to force Love to return the now twice-stolen money, plus rob a bank to garner additional funds. There’s also the matter of Buck’s former partner Wiley Escoe (Deon Cole), who betrayed him and took over the town the duo had established, and Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), a U.S. Marshall who reluctantly helps Love and his crew in an effort to recapture Buck. To be clear, this is the briefest possible synopsis of a remarkably overstuffed plot, where each introduction and every standoff is stretched out to interminable lengths. There’s also a couple of musical interludes, as well as unnecessarily complicated bits of further subterfuge, as characters seemingly double cross each other and scheme to no discernible end other than filling out the film’s mammoth runtime. Curiously, The Harder They Fall reaches what seems like a natural endpoint at the 90-minute mark, with all the players meeting for a showdown, before then launching into a prolonged third act that plays almost like an entire extra film that’s been tacked on.
Samuel and cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr. have a lot of fun playing around in this oversized, make-believe world. There’s a pleasant enough rhythm to the cutting, with bursts of action and extreme violence that work like gangbusters. Indeed, the film is at its best when it’s simply delivering set pieces: the freeing of Buck is a standout, with King and Stanfield staging a daring daylight train heist with cold-blooded ruthlessness as they massacre the Army unit guarding Buck. Elba emerging from his iron cell and stepping into freedom is about as iconic a scene as one could hope for — a particularly nice touch has Samuel using trick photography to expand the frame in time with Buck’s first breaths of freedom. Majors, for this part, makes quite an impression with his charming rogue routine, and ace character actor Lindo delivers a typically fine performance as the no-bullshit, tough-as-nails lawman. But beyond the capable cast and the occasional burst of bold primary colors, everything in this world is rendered in such broad strokes that it becomes numbingly repetitive. Samuel is working from a bunch of very familiar templates, mostly aping Leone’s widescreen epics and indulging in post-Tarantino banter. The effect is something like a comic book made up entirely of splash pages or eating an entire carton of ice cream — too much of a good thing. As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has pointed out, “the Western is an inherently ahistorical and mythic genre,” and The Harder They Fall, with its extremely attractive, all Black cast isn’t “a realistic corrective” but “a kind of irreverent counter-cartoon.” Samuels has the iconic poses and flashy outfits down pat; it’s all of the other stuff that actually makes up a movie that still needs work.
You can currently stream Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall on Netflix.