The Harder They Fall Review: A Slight But Stylish Western That's Pretty Damn Fun To Watch

There shouldn't be any lingering doubt at this point, but if there is, "The Harder They Fall" should be the definitive confirmation: Jonathan Majors is a damn movie star. As Robin Hood-like bandit Nat Love in Jeymes Samuel's ultra-slick, ultra-stylish, ultra-hip Black Western, Majors is smooth, suave, and unstoppable. When people talk about "screen presence," they're talking about what Majors does here, strutting through the film with a preternatural coolness that has to be seen to be believed. Coolness is the name of the game here, because "The Harder They Fall" is cool as hell. This is a rather straightforward Western focused on revenge, but unlike so many other Westerns of the past, "The Harder They Fall" focuses on a predominately Black cast of characters. White people exist in the margins here, and the film hammers home what it's going for in the opening seconds where we're treated to text on the screen that informs us that while the story here is fiction, the characters who inhabit it are not. "These. People. Existed." the text proclaims, and the implication is clear: if so many white cowboy-adjacent characters of history can have fictionalized movies in their honor, why not the Black figures as well? The closest connection might be the "Young Guns" films, two slick Westerns from the late 1980s and early 1990s that rounded up a group of famous, historical gunslingers and cast members of the Brat Pack generation to play them in a heavily fictionalized story. 

But "The Harder They Fall" is cooler than "Young Guns" ever was (sorry, Emilio Estevez fans). The gunfights are stylish, the costumes are on-point, and nearly everyone on the screen adopts a "go big or go home" approach." Majors' Nat Love, an outlaw who made a name for himself robbing robbers, is the focal point, but he's surrounded by a game cast who all seem to be having great fun playing cowboy. Zazie Beetz is the top hat-wearing Stagecoach Mary, who makes her entrance singing a song while stomping the butt of her rifle for a beat. Delroy Lindo is legendary Black lawman Bass Reeves, and Lindo is like an elder statesman here, effortlessly good with a limited part. Scene-stealer RJ Cyler is Jim Beckwourth, a quick-draw member of Nat's gang who fancies himself the fastest gun in the West. There's also Edi Gathegi as marksman Bill Pickett and Danielle Deadwyler as Cuffee, who has a secret or two. 

Did any of the real-life figures who inspired these characters behave anything like they do here? Probably not, since accuracy isn't a key ingredient to "The Harder They Fall." And it doesn't have to be. This is an unapologetically anachronistic flick, complete with a killer soundtrack featuring a blend of genres and lines of dialogue that would likely never be uttered in the time period the story is set. Someone, somewhere, will probably take issue with that. But this isn't a documentary. It's an excuse to watch great actors swagger around looking incredibly cool while engaging in slow-motion heavy gunfights. 


Nat Love wants revenge. When he was a child, the notorious Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) showed up at his house and brutally murdered his mother and father. When we pick up with the adult Nat, Rufus has been in prison for the last few years. But that's about to change, as Rufus' gang, which includes the cold-as-ice Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield) and the sadistic Trudy Smith (Regina King), bust him out during a prisoner transport. Rufus heads back to the small town he rules with an iron fist, ready to demand protection money from the helpless townsfolk. Nat cannot abide Rufus being free. And to make matters even more complicated, Nat and his gang are in deep trouble, having recently stolen some loot that was meant for Rufus and his town. 

And thus the stage is set for some bloody vengeance. I wish I could tell you that "The Harder They Fall" has more on its mind beyond shootouts and slow-motion shots of duster jackets flying open to reveal guns glistening in the sunlight. But the fact of the matter is that "The Harder They Falls" doesn't have much else on its mind other than pure entertainment. Sure, there's a climactic moment that attempts to put all the bloodshed in perspective and add a touch of emotional pathos to the story, but it feels tacked on and unearned, almost as if the filmmakers are trying to toss a bone to rigid critics who demand more. And while I'm tempted to be one of those very critics, I also can't deny that this movie is really friggin' cool. With his feature directorial debut, Jeymes Samuel proves himself to be a masterful stylist; someone who understands the power of iconography and posturing. Is it all a little too empty; a little too slick? Probably. But it's hard not to get swept up in it all. 

Dig In

Even if the script isn't up to snuff, "The Harder They Fall" flourishes thanks to a cheeky sense of humor (when our characters ride into a white town, we see the town is almost literally white, with the buildings covered in a dusty whitewash) and that cool, cool cast. Beetz is sadly a little underused here — she becomes a damsel in distress, something the film thinks is okay as long as it has someone literally call her a "damsel in distress" at one point — but when she finally gets to get in on the action during the grand finale, it's a blast. Stanfield's innate weirdness makes his bad guy particularly memorable as he plays the part with a surprisingly lackadaisical bent. And King is consistently wonderful as she sinks her teeth into such a nasty character. And then there's Elba, who makes for one hell of a big bad. His presence is intimidating to the point where he doesn't even have to say anything; he can merely silently glare into the camera and make us uneasy. 

But shouldn't we want just a little bit more from "The Harder They Fall"? Maybe. But I keep coming back to that "Young Guns" comparison. If it was okay for that movie to be an empty-but-entertaining anachronistic Western, why can't this movie have that sort of fun, too? I suppose you could argue that it wasn't okay for "Young Guns" to take that approach, since "Young Guns" isn't exactly what anyone would consider a great movie. But it got the job done for what it was, and so does "The Harder They Fall." 

At a little bit over two hours, "The Harder They Fall" is too long for what it's trying to be. But by the time the finale arrives with its sustained, showstopping action, you kind of forget all about the pacing problems and get hooked on watching these actors let loose. The ultra-bright lighting (almost the entire movie is set in abundant sunshine) is a touch underwhelming — it all looks too clean; too staged — but not enough to sink the fun. I guess it kind of sounds like I'm going easy on "The Harder They Fall." That I'm letting it off the hook for its transgressions. Maybe I am. But I can't help it — sometimes you want to sink your teeth into a gourmet meal, and sometimes you want junk food. Stylish, entertaining junk food. And that's what this is. So dig in. 

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10