The slick, stylish Black cowboy Western "The Harder They Fall" comes out guns blazing, introducing itself like it's kicking down a door. Which, in a sense, it is: Director and co-writer Jeymes Samuel's feature punctuates its opening by letting viewers know in a prologue that "These. Characters. Existed," as if Samuel himself is slamming his fist on a table to hammer home each word.
Those characters are real-life figures such as Nat Love, Cherokee Bill and others, marginalized players in an American West that has historically been portrayed on screen as blindingly white. History lessons aside, "The Harder They Fall" is a spirited if overlong romp, a blood-splattered, tough-talking tumble in the dirt where Samuel establishes himself as a spiritual cousin to cinematic forebears Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.
"The Harder They Fall" isn't on the level of Tarantino or Rodriguez, but you have to start somewhere. And "The Harder They Fall" establishes Samuel — he's also a singer and hip-hop producer, and the brother of "Kiss From a Rose" singer Seal — as a big screen player with attitude and flair to boot.
The film opens with the introduction of Idris Elba's Rufus Buck, a bad dude who has come to take his revenge on a man and his family. We don't know why, but we know he means business as he guns down the man's wife, then kills the man, and leaves his young son with a cross carved into his forehead.
That boy grows up to be Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), an outlaw who robs other outlaws, and longs to exact his revenge on Buck. Love has a gang, Buck has a gang, and those two gangs go to war. It's an old-fashioned showdown at sundown, a grudge match years in the making.
The cast provides plenty of zip. Buck's gang includes "Treacherous" Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield, who damn near steals the entire film), while Love's crew includes Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz), young hotshot Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) and the gender-bending Cuffie (Danielle Deadwyler). Delroy Lindo plays a federal marshal, a lawman in a time of rampant lawlessness, when ideas of good and bad play out more in terms of bad and worse.
The two gangs are paired against each other, each with their own inner rivalries, and the matchup between Cherokee Bill and Jim Beckwourth is the undercard clash that nearly overshadows the main event. Stanfield, an Oscar nominee for "Judas and the Black Messiah," is electrifying here, underplaying his role but bringing a weary sense of wisdom to his character. He was once Beckwourth but he evolved into the cool, cold and callous character he is today, and Stanfield's soul bleeds through in his performance.
Elba has a juicy role that he leaves mostly undercooked, finally tearing into it when he needs to, late in the film. Samuel tears into it throughout — his most audacious sequence unfolds in a white town, where everything, even the sand, is white — and he creates a space where his actors are free to chew up scenery and spit it out, because everyone else is, so why not. The approach brings fresh life to an aging genre, and makes this trip down Old Town Road feel new again.
'THE HARDER THEY FALL'
MPAA rating: R (for strong violence and language)
Running time: 2:10
Where to watch: Now playing in theaters; streaming on Netflix Nov. 3
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