Thursday 4 November 2021

Pimp my riders: "The Harder They Fall"

There have already been Black cowboys and Black Westerns: setting aside advance rider Cleavon Little in Mel Brooks'
Blazing Saddles, the 1990s gave us Mario van Peebles' Posse plus Buffalo Soldiers, a handsome TNT production headed by Danny Glover. It's just that those films weren't ever likely to be asked to open a major international festival - as The Harder They Fall did this year's London Film Festival - and never had the marketing push of a Netflix behind them. This, then, is the Black Western with added flash: the opening credits reveal the producers of Jeymes Samuel's film include Shawn Carter (a.k.a. Jay-Z) and longtime Tarantino facilitator Lawrence Bender, which should offer some further indication of where it's coming from. It starts out with a simple vengeance plot, of the variety that would have done for any number of mid-20th century Westerns: scarred, cheroot-smoking Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) sets out on the trail of Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), the hulking brute who gunned down our hero's parents before his youthful eyes. But soon everyone's getting involved, and Samuel is cranking everything (colour, sound, the size of these cabins and saloons) up some level beyond the norm. Elba stops off at a fruit cart on the edge of Redwood, Texas - the film's chosen dead-end town - and it's not even as if the apples, oranges and leafy greens there look fresh from craft services; their colours pop like the purples and pinks in Nicki Minaj promos. Even channelled through a run-of-the-mill home cinema system, the film's gunshots register like anti-tank shells; a single bullet unleashes a mushroom cloud of splatter. Any residual space on the soundtrack gets filled in with Samuel's own selections of hip-hop, dancehall and dub reggae, while the final shootout cues an Isaac Hayes-style blaxploitation lament. Man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, as Duke Wayne used to spit, but in his directorial debut, Samuel - who trades musically under the alias The Bullitts (and turns out to be Seal's brother) - loads another maxim into the American Western canon: go big or go home.

Rather than some sober reassessment of Black Americans' place in the Western landscape, then, The Harder They Fall is a cartoon - a spaghetti Western sponsored by Cristal, or a Fast & Furious movie with horses instead of cars. It's a fun cartoon, though, and part of the fun is that the money allows it the time and space to relax into this milieu - to enjoy itself, rather than feel like a trespasser in this territory. This isn't a big-sky Western, particularly, but Samuel and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (who shot Coppola's Tetro and Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master) draw big frames before inviting everybody over to fill them. Their film may be the first Western to have something of the block party in its DNA, reasoning that since someone's put up the cash for these sets, we might as well hang out on them for a while. (Certain Howard Hawks Westerns had a similar idea.) Self-evidently, this is not the kind of B-movie Western the Van Peebles gang were reduced to shooting circa 1993, rather an expensive-looking venture from the same studio who ponied up for Roma and The Irishman, which is why all its interiors look like Lil Wayne's crib. There's an A-list guestlist: Regina King as Elba's no-nonsense second-in-command, Zazie Beetz as a good-time gal who previously served as Nat Love's squeeze, Delroy Lindo with a magnificent moustache that pins the word "lawman" to his upper lip like a tin star.

It's going for breadth, in other words, and it gets it. (In passing, Samuel trumps John Sturges by lining up fully nine riders across the width of one frame.) In doing so, the movie sacrifices some of the taut urgency of the first-rank Westerns. The script, which Samuel penned with the ever more jawdroppingly versatile Boaz Yakin (Aviva), essentially establishes its final showdown 20 minutes in, then goes searching for chewy character business: King spends seemingly five minutes peeling one of those apples (cherry-red) and another five throttling Beetz, only to let her live anyway. Yet all this business benefits from performers who'd be unlikely even to have auditioned for Western material in the past, and who can now bring new and unexpected notes to proceedings. Elba, one of this century's most variable stars, underplays the villain role nicely, allowing his bulk to do the bulk of his talking, and mostly resting up awhile at the Redwood Hotel, waiting for the supporting players to knock one another off the board. But that's about it for restraint; crash-zooming and split-screening the hell out of the remaining two hours, Samuel mostly appears to have taken his cue from the cocky young gunslinger among Love's gang who describes his quickdraw technique as "lightin' up with the blam-blams". The Harder They Fall is absolutely and unmistakably the work of a director lighting up with the blam-blams, and I reckon you'll know from that whether that need concern you of a Friday or Saturday night.

The Harder They Fall screens in selected London cinemas today, and is currently streaming on Netflix.

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