By Lynn Venhaus
A good-looking film with a kicky soundtrack, “The Harder They Fall” comes across as a bloody western shot like a music video.
It’s no surprise, because first-time director Jeymes Samuel, a music producer and singer-songwriter known as The Bullitts, is a protégé of Jay-Z and worked with him on “The Great Gatsby” soundtrack for director Baz Luhrmann. Under his real name, Shawn Carter, Jay-Z is one of the film’s producers.
Samuel demonstrates an appealing slick style, but sadly the well-worn story lacks substance. Co-written by veteran screenwriter Boaz Yakin and Samuel as a tale of revenge and robbery, it’s merely ordinary – without much character development, squanders the talents of its extraordinary cast that includes solid-gold Idris Elba, Regina King and Delroy Lindo, with rising stars Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz and LaKeith Stanfield, who just gets better with every role.
The lethal shoot-outs and blood-spurting showdowns, an integral part of the western genre, are repetitive and do little to advance a gripping story. Overall, the plot is run-of-the-mill, mostly predictable, except for the third act revelation.
It’s unfortunate because you want to root for this type of new western that spotlights black cowboys. Supposedly, on the western frontier, one in four cowboys were black, and they haven’t been given proper due in America’s history on ‘go west’ and the great migration.
In the beginning, the director states that the story is fiction, but the people existed. Most of the action takes place in Redwood City, which was a primarily black community.
Faring well in this film are emerging stars Danielle Deadwyler as Cuffee, who identifies as him and would like a career in law enforcement, and Edi Gathegi as Bill Pickett, a young trigger-happy hotshot.
RJ Cyler has a solid turn as sharpshooter Jim Beckworth as does Deon Cole as Wiley Escoe, but it is Majors’ film. His outlaw Nat Love, no matter how many times he’s intimidated or dismissed, is driven and relentless.
Playing a man of few words who acts quickly, Elba’s physicality is felt throughout, a foreboding presence from the opening scene where he takes down a family, to breaking out of chains in prison stripes, and then as a feared frontier gang leader.
An interesting twist is how fierce the women are – Regina King as “Treacherous Trudy” and Zazie Beetz as Stagecoach Mary. They take the bullets out of their guns and use their fists and hand-held weapons for a rip-roaring knock-down drag-out brutal fight.
With its attractive production elements, the movie benefits from cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. ‘s framing of these newly constructed towns, showcasing the period production design by Martin Whist, with editing by Tom Eagles. The violence is graphic – a blown-off arm here, an exploding head there.
Amid the dusty outdoors and bullet-ripped clothes, Antoinette Messam’s costume design features a wide range of interesting vintage hats and lived-in frontier wear, with a few striking dusters and coats adding to the characters’ stature. You can always pick out Nat Love because of his jaunty red kerchief.
Not to be confused with a 1956 movie of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart, “The Harder They Fall” unfortunately lacks staying power because it preferred style over substance.
“The Harder They Fall” is a 2021 western directed by Jaymes Samuel and stars Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors, Regina King, Zazie Beets, LaKeith Stanfield, Delroy Lindo and Danielle Deadwyler. Rated R for strong violence and language, the run time is 2 hours and 16 minutes. In theaters Oct. 22 and streaming on Netflix on Nov. 3. Lynn’s Grade: C+
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.