These. People. Existed. Those three words — and that very emphatic punctuation — appear onscreen at the beginning of “The Harder They Fall,” setting a definitive tone for this stylish and bold new Western by Jeymes Samuel. Yes, Samuel is saying, his storyline is fictional, though loosely based on real characters. But don’t forget for a minute that these people — meaning the Black cowboys and and families that populated the Old West — were really there. Samuel, the British filmmaker-musician also known as The Bullitts, is a fan of old Westerns, but he introduces much that’s new — especially an eclectic soundtrack that bends genres, time periods and moods (and is curated by none other than Jay-Z, a producer here); gorgeous visuals that sometimes resemble paintings; and a stellar cast of Black actors, telling a story sorely underrepresented in cinema.
The only thing that feels ordinary, frankly, are the gunshots. Lots and lots and lots of gunshots. And bodies. The violence is expertly choreographed, but some of us surely could have done with less bloodshed (there are Tarantino-esque flourishes here, too) and more dialogue to deepen some of the tantalizing relationships Samuel introduces. On the other hand, there’s a reason they call these movies shoot-em-ups. The cast is led by a terrific Jonathan Majors as Nat Love, an outlaw bent on avenging a terrible wrong he suffered in childhood, and the prestige pairing of Idris Elba as Rufus Buck, Love’s fearsome nemesis, and Regina King as his ally “Treacherous Trudy” Smith, a tough gangster holding her own in a male-dominated world. (Favorite line alert: Don’t miss her reply when Love asks the whereabouts of “your boss.”) Excellent supporting performances come from LaKeith Stanfield, Delroy Lindo, Zazie Beets and a fascinating Danielle Deadwyler as a male-identifying saloon bouncer who aspires to bigger things.
They’re all playing versions of real characters who inhabited the frontier in different times, places and circumstances. This classic revenge tale begins with a harrowing scene of a pastor’s family sitting down to a peaceful dinner in their remote cabin. A knock comes at the door, and a masked Buck enters. Soon the parents are shot dead — we don’t know why — and their traumatized young boy has a cross engraved in his forehead. Years later, that boy — Love — is a known outlaw, part of a gang that robs other gangs, and Buck has been locked away in prison. Love has gradually tracked down Buck’s accomplices from that terrible night. But then he learns Buck himself may soon be free.
Love’s gang includes right-hand man Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), the humorous, fast-talking and fast-drawing young Jim Beckwourth (an appealing RJ Cyler), and his ex, the woman he still loves, the beautiful Stagecoach Mary (Beets). Meanwhile in a bloody train takeover, the prisoner Buck is freed from a vault by his allies, Trudy and sharpshooter Cherokee Bill (Stanfield), a man who lets his gun do the talking. “I don’t particularly enjoy violence,” Bill tells the victims, unconvincingly. One of the most visually distinctive scenes depicts a bank robbery in Maysville, a white town. Not only are the residents white, but the buildings, the rocks, the horses, the shingles — Samuel is seemingly pointing out how Westerns we grew up with were, similarly, whitewashed.
In contrast, the Black towns, like Redwood City, where Buck awaits the vengeful Love, are full of color of all kinds. It all leads, obviously, to an epic showdown, and a key plot twist — but style is more important than plot here, and the movie sure has style. Much of it comes from the varied soundtrack, which includes original songs like “My Guns Go Bang,” performed by Jay-Z and Kid Cudi, but also reggae, hip-hop, Afrobeat and more. The costumes by Antoinette Messam are terrific too, especially for the women. Still, you might be left wishing a bit more time had been devoted to character development. Both romantic relationships here deserve more attention, and some supporting characters never get the chance to make us really care. But there’s a hint at the end that we might see some of these characters again. Can we put in a request for a just a few less bullets, in favor of emotional firepower? “The Harder They Fall,” a Netfl ix release, has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for strong violence and language.” Running time: 130 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four. MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or guardian. By Jocelyn Noveck