At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Harder They Fall “2021”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Harder They Fall “2021”

MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Western/Stars: Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, Lakeith Stanfield, RJ Cyler, Danielle Deadwyler, Edi Gathegi, Deon Cole, Damon Wayans Jr., DeWanda Wise, Michael Beach, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Mark “Rhino” Smith, Chase Dillon/Runtime: 139 minutes

I think it would make for a rather creative way to start this, my first review in quite some time, off by presenting you with a simple yet important three-word phrase dear reader. That phrase being as follows: “These. People. Existed.” No this isn’t the epitaph written on a memorial for people who either died or turned into rage zombies during the events that came before those seen in 28 Days Later. Nor for that matter is it a phrase which you might spraypainted onto a wall in the background of one of George A. Romero’s later “….of the Dead” movies. Rather, this dear reader is the beginning scrawl for the slice of cinema I am reviewing for you today in the form of 2021’s The Harder They Fall and more than anything I believe it is meant to serve as a rather straightforward and to the point nudging. A nudging that, more than anything, wants you to know that, contrary to what that iconic genre of movie magic known as the Western has showcased throughout the majority of its existence in the history of cinema, African Americans did play quite the part in the realm of the Old West and this is going to be the film that finally gives the world some of their stories….sort of. Yet despite the fact that we as an audience are getting a chance to see this community get the focus they have been long overdue to receive, there are those who will just look at the trailer for this and feel that this slice of cinema is merely going down paths that have already been traversed time and time again without really bringing anything new to the genre overall. With all due respect to those people however I would say that’s not entirely accurate. To be sure, there are a few hiccups to be found with this slice of cinema, but by and large this is one slice of cinema that makes for a downright engaging venture complete with compelling characters brought to life by an exceptionally well chosen cast of players, absolutely engaging work behind the camera, some truly dynamite action beats that will leave you on the edge of your seat, and even a fair bit of pathos to give this movie a wee bit more oomph than you might have otherwise anticipated. Suffice it to say that this film not only does a wonderful job at tipping its hat to the works that came before it, but also manages to showcase how the Western genre can still work nowadays to such an incredibly done extent that you may be left wondering why we never got this until now, but nevertheless you’ll still be more than happy that we got it.

The plot is as follows: Taking us back to that iconic time and place known simply as the Old West, The Harder They Fall gets its trailblazing yarn underway by introducing us to an 11-year-old boy by the name of Nat Love. A boy who, when our story begins, is a seemingly ordinary young man with a loving relationship with his mom and dad who he is sitting down to enjoy dinner with. Or at least that was the plan before Lady Fate decided to alter it and not in any good way. I say this dear reader because it isn’t long into their meal that we see this quality time being had by this family unit is significantly disrupted by the arrival of a man named Rufus Buck. A guy who, among other things worth knowing about him, is a notorious and quite ruthless member of that distinct community found in the Ol’ West known as outlaws. A fact he soon showcases for Nat, and us, by not only gunning down his mom and dad in cold blood, but also by carving a cross directly into our hero’s forehead (ouch!). From there, we see that our story moves ahead by a solid 2 decades where we see that, in the time since, little boy Nat has turned into a fairly notorious outlaw in his own right even if, for all the illegal actions he has engaged in during that distinct period of time, he still would love nothing more than the opportunity to find his old nemesis Buck and shoot him square between the eyes for what he did to him and his family. Of course, it isn’t long before Fate, most likely due to feeling a twinge of guilt for what she put Nat and his family through all those years ago, decides to give him the chance to do just that. A chance that begins when we see Buck’s gang, led by his righthand woman Trudy Smith and lethal gunslinger Cherokee Bill, are able to get onboard the train leaving from Yuma Territorial Prison that has Buck onboard, free him, and also promptly annihilate the troop of U.S Army officers onboard in the process. Of course, such an action is not one that is bound to go unnoticed and of course it isn’t long before Love hears about Buck’s release from perhaps the most unlikely source imaginable. As a result, and seeing a clear chance to acquire the vengeance that has long eluded him, we see that Nat assembles his own gang comprised of sharpshooter Bill Pickett, former flame Mary Fields, and a fast draw named Jim Beckwourth among others to head out after him. Thus with these two gangs now on an impending collision course can our “hero” and his crew win the day or is this one gunfight they don’t have enough bullets to come out on top of? That I shall leave for you to discover for yourself dear reader…..

Now right off, it should be noted that the work done behind the camera on this slice of cinema is truly nothing short of phenomenal. Indeed right from the word go where we see the young Nat helplessly watch as his mom and dad are butchered right in front of him, it is very obvious that film helmer Jeymes Samuel is not screwing around here. As such, not only does he do a terrific job in spot-on showcasing the overall chaotic state of how the Wild West was, but also in making Western genre vets like Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone, and John Ford smile with approval especially in how he is able to set up a downright incredible sense of time and place with his gutsy work at the helm and in giving this film a tone that is always brilliantly balancing on the edge between ominous and just plain fun. We also see that Samuel is backed up wonderfully by a phenomenally skilled crew starting with the top-tier work done by editor Tom Eagles at bringing to this film a delightfully provocative vibe that instantly makes you aware this is not the kind of Western your grandfather (or even mine come to think) grew up on. I mean from how the cast of players are introduced to us during the opening credits with swift cuts to an outline for every character accompanied by who is portraying them all with a rap song by Jay Z playing in the background all the way to quick cuts in point of view during the action beats in this, Eagles does a wonderful job of bringing this slice of cinema with an aggressive ruthlessness that is sure to keep even people who might not exactly be the biggest lovers of the Western genre intrigued all the way through. We also see that this slice of cinema is the blessed recipient of a terrific script from helmer Samuels and Boaz Yakin. Yes there are some moments in the script that definitely could have been tinkered with a bit more, but by and large it’s fairly impressive how this film’s script manages to utilize several actual real-life individuals from the Wild West who became famous through one way or another and then set them all loose in a story that feels less like a true story and more like an adaptation of a graphic novel about these individuals instead. We also see that this slice of cinema contains wonderful work from cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr. at making sure everything feels real (right down to the on-location shooting done in Santa Fe, New Mexico) to such an extent that every dime of this film’s 90-million-dollar budget feels like it was put on screen for us to see. We also see that Mălaimare Jr. does a wonderful job of ensuring that while a lot of other movies might have made the choice to utilize CGI for certain things, this film instead makes the wonderful creative choice to feel, due to vibrant colors, gorgeous locales, and drawn-out shots, more like a movie Sergio Leone might have done back in the day mixed with some delightful modern touches.  Suffice it to say that when you also incorporate into the mix a phenomenal soundtrack brilliantly chosen and utilized throughout this film by the director, it’s clear that whilst the script does have some missteps here and there, the rest of the work done by the crew behind the camera makes up for it and then some in the best way possible.

Of course, it also doesn’t hurt this slice of cinema in the least that the work done in front of the camera by this group of performers is able to synch up brilliantly with the aforementioned work done behind the camera and prove to be just as engaging in its own right. This starts with Jonathan Majors in the lead role and while yes I am aware of events that have occurred in this man’s life since this film was first released, I also feel it should be said that anyone who got to see what he could do as an actor was aware of the man’s talent and how multifaceted he is (?) as a performer. Suffice it to say that with his performance here, Majors again showcases that versatility as the bullheaded, roguishly charming, and yet also quite emotive Nat Love. Yes there are moments where he is a typically charming rogue who manages to get out of situations with a sneaky grin and/or quips to spare, but we also see that Majors is just as willing to let us see that Nat is still very much broken by his parents’ demises and obsessed with seeking vengeance on Buck no matter the cost. Yet even with such turbulent emotion coursing through him, we also see that there is a degree of honor to this character that Majors brilliantly highlights in order to distinguish him from his foe. As a result, yes Nat has no qualms about eliminating bad guys, but he also doesn’t believe in senselessly butchering people by any means either. Suffice it to say that it does truly make for a rather compelling performance from a guy who, again personal life aside, did showcase quite a bit of talent during his time on the screen. Alongside the work done by Majors, we see that this slice of cinema does contain one heck of a supporting cast to back him up starting with the downright magnetic Idris Elba as Nat’s foe Rufus Buck and Regina King as Buck’s right-hand woman Trudy Smith. Indeed in regards to the former, it should be noted that Elba does a phenomenal job at bringing a genuine menace and ruthlessness to this character that even when he isn’t on screen, you can still feel his presence in every single minute of this film. With that said though, the best aspect of what Elba brings to the part is not the menace nor his presence. Rather, it’s a moment in this film’s third act that, without going into spoilers, does a grand job at allowing Elba to showcase his skills as an actor in a way that the rest of the film really hadn’t. As for the latter, it should be said that King is just downright a force of nature in this as she manages to take the character of Trudy and makes her a nightmarish blend of intellect and deviousness that really aids her in contrasting the work done by Elba perfectly. We also see that, among the people aiding Nat, that Zazie Beets does a wonderful job in her role of Nat’s on/off lover Stagecoach Mary even IF the script does have her making a decision that will have you go “really??” and both RJ Cyler and Danielle Deadwyler doing a wonderful job of bringing a delightful and welcome amount of humor to the proceedings as well. Suffice it to say that when you also factor into the mix incredible efforts from such talents as Lakeith Stanfield who is genuinely scary at times as gunslinger Cherokee Bill, Deon Cole, Damon Wayans Jr., and Delroy Lindo who is just plain awesome as real-life lawman Bass Reeves among others it’s clear that this movie might have issues, but the work done by this cast is by no means one of them.

All in all and at the end of the day is The Harder They Fall a perfect slice of cinema let alone an exemplary example in its distinct genre of movie magic? Sadly as much as I would love to say that is the case I also promised that I would never lie to you dear reader. With that being said however, does that make this the worst Western since 2015’s The Ridiculous 6 and 1999’s Wild Wild West or even the worst entry in any of its main stars’ filmographies since Idris Elba decided to be in 2019’s Cats or Delroy Lindo thought being a part of the 2015 Point Break remake was a wise career move? Thankfully, I can definitely say that is not the case by any stretch of the imagination either. Rather, I would have to say that this slice of cinema manages to be something that is truly special. I say that because even though there were some African-Americans like Woody Strode, Herb Jeffries, and James Edwards who made an impact in old-school Westerns back in the day, the sad reality is that African American actors rarely got the chance to be front and center in them. To be sure, such screen dignitaries as Sidney Poitier and Mario Van Peebles did their part to try and fix this, but even so by and large the fact remains that Westerns with African-Americans are still not as greenlit or funded as often or well as they should be. Thankfully this slice of cinema manages to be not only a terrific outlier to that, but also a potentially wonderfully sign of what could be on the horizon from both the time-honored genre of which it is a part and the exciting new directorial voice that is regaling us with this. Indeed, here is a slice of cinema that is able to viscerally violent, incredibly made in nearly every aspect possible, endlessly engaging, and with a cast of players that is, no matter how big or small their amount of screentime in the proceedings may be, all aces and given more than their fair share of moments to truly shine and make an impact in the grand scheme of things. To be sure, there are a few instances where the script does possess a few choices that don’t really work as well as the rest of the film, but even so the rest of the film thankfully is able to make up for those shortcomings. Suffice it to say then that at the end of the day The Harder They Fall might not hit a bulls-eye in every single way, but it is able to make its mark all the same whilst also being just a plain darn great example of the genre of movie magic of which it is a part all the same. Make of that what thou will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Harder They Fall “2021” a solid 4 out of 5.