Growing up, I saw a few Westerns: “True Grit” (1969) and “Jeremiah Johnson” (1972), but my favorite — and my dad’s — was Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” (1974). But “Deadwood” aside, I never liked TV Westerns, and didn’t really start to appreciate the genre until I was on the job and seeing Clint Eastwood pictures like “Pale Rider” (1986). Back then, if Eastwood wasn’t involved, you got some pretty wonky oaters, like “Bad Girls” (1994), and the genre was considered niche — you couldn’t sell a Western in Europe unless it had Michael J. Fox and a time-traveling DeLorean on the poster. It’s been gratifying to see filmmakers like Tarantino and the Coens make their mark on the horse opera.
Jeymes Samuel’s debut film “The Harder They Fall” (Netflix-Overbrook Entertainment, 2021, 139 min.), which he co-wrote with Boaz Yakin (“Fresh”), is a much more successful take on Mario Van Peebles’ Black revisionist Western “Posse” (1993). Samuel aims for a big target here: “The Harder They Fall” plays out like a modern Sergio Leone spaghetti Western with an all-Black cast and a heavy hip-hop influence, both on the soundtrack and the whole feel of the film in terms of cinematography and editing.
The film opens with a father, mother and son sitting down to supper when a band of bad guys led by Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) shows up, kills mom and dad and leaves the kid, Nat Love, with a scar on his forehead. We then pick up with Nat (Jonathan Majors), all grown up and on the trail of the gang that killed his parents. He has his own gang, including Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz), who runs a string of saloons.
Meanwhile, Regina King (“Watchmen”) and Elba’s gang spring Elba during an exciting and bloody train robbery, and the stage is set for the inevitable third act confrontation. In this testosterone fest, King pretty well steals the whole picture, and for once, when the movie sets up her character for a sequel, I was all in. The rest of the cast includes icons like Delroy Lindo, and younger talent like Edi Cathegi (“X-Men First Class”) and Deon Cole (“Conan”)
“The Harder They Fall” is co-produced by Tarantino’s early partner Lawrence Bender, and the film definitely has that cineaste flavor; you can feel Samuel throwing all kinds of stylistic stuff at the screen, as if it’s the only movie he’s ever going to get made. I think he’s a big Brian DePalma fan — part of the train robbery is shot in split-screen.
Most important, the film opens with the following lines:
“While the events of this story are fictional…”
“These. People. Existed.”
Recommended: “House of Gucci” at Regal
RIP Stephen Sondheim (“West Side Story,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Into the Woods,” “Company”)
RIP Lina Wertmuller (“Seven Beauties,” “The Seduction of Mimi,” “Swept Away”)
RIP Michael Nesmith (“Head,” “Repo Man,” “Timerider; The Adventure of Lyle Swann,” “Elephant Parts”)