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The Harder They Fall review – Idris Elba rides into trouble in garishly violent western | Film

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The London film festival saddles up for a gonzo revenge western which aims to reclaim the often erased African American side of this genre and history. It stars Regina King, Idris Elba and LaKeith Stanfield, and is created by the impressive hyphenate Jeymes Samuel, also known as singer-songwriter and film-maker The Bullitts, who also co-produces along with Tarantino veteran Lawrence Bender.

Samuel has brought out short movies alongside his music releases in the past and now makes this headbangingly, face-splatteringly violent feature debut, featuring the gun-toting gangsters of the old west wearing old-timey hats of all shapes and sizes. This is a really cine-literate piece of work, with echoes of Sergio Leone, John Sturges and perhaps also Mario Van Peebles’s Posse. There are some terrific moments, although the pace and the drumbeat of violence, confrontation and standoff is maybe a bit uniform, and I would have liked a bit more witty or tender dialogue to go into the mix. But if it’s more style than substance, well it really is tremendous style, and the four-note punch that hammers out the title on the screen at the beginning – THE-HARDER-THEY-FALL – is inspired.

It’s about two gangs of people almost entirely inured to violence and fear: one is led by Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), who bears a cross cut into his forehead by the villain who killed his mum and dad in front of him when he was just a kid – and he’s out for revenge. Those under his command include sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler), trigger-happy Jim Beckworth (RJ Cyler); this even includes the local marshal, Bass Reeves, played by Delroy Lindo, whose unofficial alliance with the Nat Love gang signals that they are kind of the good guys, just about. But the most important member of the gang could well be Stagecoach Mary, played by Zazie Beetz, with whom poor Nat is hopelessly in love.

Ranged against them are the Rufus Buck gang. Rufus himself is played by an impassive Elba, whose character is in fact absent from the screen for quite a bit; riding with him are the formidably tough Trudy Smith (King) and the inexpressibly cool Cherokee Bill, played by Stanfield. They have a crooked gold-toothed sheriff under their whip: Wiley Escoe, played by Deon Cole. Rufus’s gang begin by rescuing their leader from a prison train and reveal (a bit bewilderingly) that they have a federal pardon for confronting the military unit guarding Buck because of the army’s own brutality.

The Nat Love gang are effectively reunited when they ambush the Buck gang and steal their ill-gotten gains from a bank job; this brings them into a confrontation that was always going to happen, given Nat’s need for payback and Buck’s guilt. The matter is complicated when Mary, with imperious chutzpah, actually rides into Buck territory on a recon mission and is kidnapped, and Love and his followers are forced to rob a bank in a white town (with houses and furnishings in an eerie, facetious shade of white) to ransom Mary and pay what Rufus still figures they owe him from the original larceny. But Nat has plans to turn this against his old enemy.

Every shot, every scene, every exchange from The Harder They Fall is combat-ready and garishly tensed for violence – and Samuel certainly brings the freaky mayhem, with gruesome relish and high energy. My feeling, though, is that there is a diminishing return on it, and the big reveal at the end is slightly silly and somehow retrospectively discloses that we haven’t really found out enough about Rufus Buck’s backstory. But Samuel is a gunslinger with style.

The Harder They Fall screens at the London film festival on 6 October, and is released on 22 October in UK cinemas. It will be available on 2 November on Netflix.

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The Groucho

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