The Harder They Fall

It’d be easy to make obvious comparisons between The Harder They Fall and its Western predecessors.

There are notes of Sergio Leone, Howard Hawks, George P. Cosmatos and others known in the genre. But first-time feature director Jeymes Samuel brings in a spark of his own thanks to his music background, staging his all-Black Western with the same excitement and virtuosity of a long-form visual album like Beyoncé’s Lemonade or Frank Ocean’s Endless.

Samuel’s debut proves that a film that centers a Black cast need not be purely about Black suffering, nor a period piece about the horrors of slavery. Instead, Samuel recruits one of the most exciting ensembles of the year for a bloody Western romp complete with empowered characters, old grudges and quick-drawn guns.

The film follows the members of the Nat Love Gang, led by Jonathan Majors’ Love, who aim to get their righteous revenge on the Rufus Buck Gang, led by Idris Elba’s Buck. They're aided by a steely deputy marshal in Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo in his first major role since Da 5 Bloods). The Harder They Fall feels like if Spike Lee’s Inside Man were a Western; it’s got a wicked sense of humor and thrills for days, but it’s also got a searing human story brewing underneath the surface — one about the cyclical nature of violence and how revenge, while a dish best served cold, may never be as filling as one would hope.

The rest of the cast is loaded, featuring some of the best actors working today — Regina King, Zazie Beets, LaKeith Stanfield, RJ Cyler, Edi Gathegi, Deon Cole and Danielle Deadwyler. But the film is ultimately a chess game between Majors and Elba, and the two’s shared scenes make for some of the most engaging of the year. Elba’s grizzled, dour outlaw might be his career-best performance.

The Harder They Fall feels like the new Tombstone, a crowd-pleasing popcorn Western that has style for days and a jagged smirk that’s followed quickly by a bullet to the shoulder. It’s impossibly fun and fitfully irreverent. Samuel more than pays homage not only to some of the Western greats but also to pioneering Black directors like Lee, Gordon Parks and Melvin Van Peebles. It’s a sure shot not to be missed.

The Jay Z-produced film opens Friday at Malco Smyrna Cinema and begins streaming on Netflix Nov. 3.