Co-written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Jeymes Samuel, “The Harder They Fall” (★★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters and streaming on Netflix now) takes the cowboy genre for a ride with style, swagger and a star-filled largely Black cast. And as rival outlaws, Majors and Elba mosey onto the screen with magnetism akin to a modern Clint Eastwood or John Wayne in a dazzling and contemporary take on real-life historical figures.
Nat Love (Majors) is a wanted man wanting revenge on those responsible for the murder of his parents. He and his gang, including marksman Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi) and cocky quick-draw Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler), think they’ve accomplished the mission, with crime boss Rufus Buck (Elba) – the man who pulled the trigger and physically scarred Nat for life with a cross – doing time in Yuma prison.
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But Buck is released from jail and he and his associates, treacherous right-hand woman Trudy Smith (Regina King) and enigmatic gunslinger Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield), wind up getting a full pardon. That fact – and the Love gang inadvertently stealing $25,000 of Buck’s money – leads to a series of showdowns between the two outlaws. Love’s posse gets a boost when his saloon-owning ex Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), her quietly intense bouncer Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler) and famed lawman Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) join the campaign.
Samuel freshens up familiar Western tropes, situations and dialogue with a knife-sharp sense of humor and current sensibilities: Cherokee Bill subtly name-drops the Dred Scott decision in a bit of clever wordplay, and the cocky Beckwourth wields six-shooters and boasts such as “I’m lightning with the blam-blams.”
If HBO’s supernaturally tinged “Lovecraft Country” didn’t prove to enough folks that Majors is Hollywood’s most captivating new leading man, “Harder They Fall” rests that case. He adds to his growing résumé with a standout showing as Nat, an outlaw who robs from outlaws with a grin that belies his internal anger and quest for vengeance against Buck. As Mary tells him, “As long as that man draws breath, your spirit’s going to be cursed and wild as it ever was.”
Elba’s definitely game to be his opposite number, bringing his usual ferocity but also lending a weathered, even wise thoughtfulness to his villain. The supporting cast around the dueling duo is great, too, especially King as a no-nonsense antagonist in a bowler hat; Stanfield giving Westerns the most unpredictably peculiar rogue since Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday in “Tombstone”; and Lindo bringing gravitas to Reeves, the U.S. marshal who in some corners is considered an inspiration for the Lone Ranger.
While Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp have had their day, “The Harder They Fall” puts the spotlight squarely on Black legends of the old West – not only Buck and Love but also Sally, Pickett, Beckwourth and Cherokee Bill. Their narrative here uses bits of hip hop, reggae and brass-fueled funk to give the movie galloping energy, and Samuel’s committed to Western spectacle, down to the eye-catching costumes, from Sally’s top hat to Rufus’ striped prison jumpsuit.
With a pair of Hollywood gunslingers, a few solid twists and plenty of bullets, “The Harder They Fall” is a shoot-’em-up to remember.