Movie Review: The More They Fall

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THE HARDEST THEY FALL (left to right): JONATHAN MAJORS as NAT LOVE and IDRIS ELBA as RUFUS BUCK in THE HARDEST THEY FALL Cr. DAVID LEE / NETFLIX © 2021

By Dwight Brown

They are thugs. Badass. Outlaws who wrap pistols fire bullets.

The setup for this shoot ’em up began with the 2013 short film They Die by Dawn, an brainchild of Jeymes Samuel, aka “The Bullitts”. He is a British singer-songwriter, producer and writer / director who is also the brother of Grammy Award-winning musician Seal. Formerly, Samuel made films to accompany his album releases. They Die… fits this pattern and featured Western characters based on real people: Nat Love, played by Michael K. Williams and Stagecoach Mary played by Erykah Badu. Eight years later, after a period of perfect gestation, The Harder They Fall arrives in theaters and on Netflix and its genius is no accident. It was nurtured by Samuel and co-writer Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans) who wisely created a Wild West tale of biblical proportions with a new cast and additional characters.

Nat Love (Jonathan Majors, The Last Black Man In San Francisco) dragged and killed villains who played with him and his family decades ago. The barrel of his gun inflicted the ultimate punishment over and over again. The last one standing is the killer he despises the most, the cunning and elusive Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). The mutual hatred of men is as deep as that of Cain and Abel.

Love rides with his gang: the occasional lover Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz, Atlanta), the fiery Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi) and Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) a shooter who likes to show off his quick draw. Buck, in the midst of a transfer to prison, seeks help from his group led by “Treacherous” Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield). No city in Texas is big enough for both. Something is going to happen. Someone is going to die.

A graphic murder begins the sequence. It takes place in a small house with furniture, props and props that appear to have been stolen from the set of “Gunsmoke” (decorator Martin Whist; decorators Jay Hart, Cynthia La Jeunesse and Anthony Whitman). Obviously, a young Nat has been wronged and emotionally scarred by a demonic act. No need to guess why adult Nat’s revenge is so fierce. It’s a return on investment, a driving force that propels the film until the last bullet is fired. The character court surrounding Nat and Rufus is as colorful, deadly, and memorable as any gunslinger ever gathered for a wes / dra / act / thr. And, somehow, intuitively, Samuel and Yakin found a way for outlaws to talk on an 1800s country / western streak with the ferocity of rabid gangbangers of modern times. Specifically, Majors’ style of speech, inflection, phrasing and dialogue will leave audiences stunned by the authenticity of his character in the 19th century, post-Civil War era, and contemporary arrogance.

As a director, Samuel keeps the action coming and going. Tense verbal confrontations, robberies, shootings, punches and rides on arid lands test the courage of the actors, stuntmen and the director of photography (Mihai Malaimare Jr., Jojo Rabbit). A steady, pulsating rhythm beats faster and faster as it gets closer to the film’s 2 hours 10 minutes (editor Tom Eagles, Jojo Rabbit). Everything is great. Strong. Exaggerated. Especially the thundering hooves of the horses which pound the earth like explosives. And the soundtrack vibrates with bold music that reinforces the film’s bravery spirit, although it doesn’t necessarily reflect the era. Jamaican reggae singer Koffee sings the title song, reggae / dancehall legend Barrington Levy, Jay-Z, Lauryn Hill and Jadakiss also bring the house down. Only a few scenes flounder or are too far-fetched: an endless marriage proposal and an improbable trick to buy a saloon.

The shootings are brutal and choreographed with both grace and robustness. The universally convincing performances are a testament to an astute director who knows how to get what he needs from a very professional cast. Some might want to compare Samuel’s visions to Sergio Leone’s sleek spaghetti westerns. Others will evoke the name of Tarantino. Samuel’s ability to blend old, new, and black culture sets him apart from these two, and black westerns (eg, Mario Van Peeble’s Posse) are a genre all their own. It should also be noted that these curse-breathing blacks rarely, if ever, utter the “N” word.

The vibrant ensemble of the sterling cast harmonizes perfectly and they are dressed for battle (costume designer Antoinette Messam). Danielle Deadwyler’s portrayal of Mary’s androgynous security guard is one for LGBTQ ages. Delroy Lindo as Sheriff Bass Reeves, who plays on both sides of the fence, can blow anyone up in his path. Stanfield’s Cherokee is just enough sardonic and laconic: “Being afraid will only give you bad karma in the afterlife.” King is as deadly as a Colt 45 with a slug in his room. Beetz overlaps well with the femininity and aggressive qualities of her character, while Elba paraded like an African king, as it should be. If there is one actor who shines a little brighter, it’s Majors, who finds all the right nuances in a bad boy to settle his grievances as a man.

This cowboy tale is unmistakably strong and Afrocentric, à la Black Panther. It’s as avant-garde as it is retro. Expect action-loving Netflix watchers to congregate around TVs like curious townspeople watching the shootout at OK Corral. If you love westerns as much as you love the black swagger, this one is calling you.

In theaters now. On Netflix November 3, 2021.

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