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Some Westerns are steeped in period authenticity, committed to making every gritty, historical detail as accurate as possible, down to the leather on the stirrups. The recent “Old Henry” is a good example.
Other Westerns feature good-looking actors dressing up and playing cowboy. There’s nothing wrong with the latter — it’s been a part of Hollywood since the silent Westerns of Tom Mix.
Jeymes Samuel’s “The Harder They Fall,” which opens in theaters Friday and will be on Netflix Nov. 2, is that kind of Hollywood Western. It’s stylish and engaging, with some top-notch actors engaging in elegantly choreographed shootouts. And you won’t believe a lick of it.
The one revolutionary thing about “The Harder They Fall” is that nearly all of the characters are Black. Samuel and co-writer Boaz Yakin have taken the names of real Black cowboys and put them in a wholly fictional story. “These. People. Existed.” reads the onscreen words that open the movie, but the film isn’t really about representing these real-life figures. It’s about giving Black actors the chance to ride horses, fire six-shooters and have the same sort of widescreen adventures that white actors have had in the genre for generations.
The simple revenge story draws obviously from great Westerns of the past, starting with an opening scene in which a frontier family sits down to dinner. You don’t have to have seen “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” to know that most of that family will be gunned down by the end of the scene, courtesy of an outlaw named Rufus Buck (Idris Elba).
Buck lets one family member, a 10-year-old boy named Nat Love, live, but carves a cross in his forehead. Love grows up to become an outlaw himself (played by Jonathan Majors), but one who robs other outlaws, all the while searching for the man who killed his family.
Nat assembles a crew of colorful sidemen with memorable nicknames along the way, including the bold Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), the boastful quick-draw artist Jim Beckworth (a very funny CJ Kyler) and the veteran lawman Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo).
On the other side, Buck has his own team of imaginatively named henchman, including the sly Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) and the sociopathic Treacherous Trudy (Regina King). Seeing King, who usually plays maternal roles in films like “If Beale Street Could Talk,” as a cold-eyed killer is one of the biggest pleasures of this movie.
It all comes to a head in a frontier town Buck has taken over, with a drawn-out gun battle climax full of CGI blood spatters and bodies flying through the air like Cirque du Soleil performers. Not realistic, but pretty fun if you like that sort of thing. Samuel directs with verve, saturating the screen with bright colors and always looking for an unexpected angle to shoot the action from. The soundtrack mixes an Ennio Morricone-style score with a range of Black genres, including not just hip-hop and, as the movie’s title suggests, reggae, but classic soul and even Afrobeat.
There are some funny moments, such as a bank robbery in a “white town” (I won’t spoil it), and some poignant ones, especially as Majors digs into the grief underlying Love’s quest. But mostly, this is a film about cool people doing cool things, and there’s nothing wrong with that sometimes.