Netflix’s new, sprawling Western The Harder They Fall, commences with this very brief prologue: “While the events of this story are fictional…These. People. Existed.” I believe it’s meant to imply that for too long African-Americans were underrepresented or, worse, outright ignored in the history of the old west and especially in the genre of cinema that captured it. This movie aims to correct the record, or so it tells us.

To illustrate this, I’ll do a bit of punctuating myself. Randolph Scott. John Wayne. Clint Eastwood. A bunch of old white men to be sure, so I’ll grant that maybe it’s time for new faces and icons. But this way?

Surely African-Americans populated the frontier and surely their stories have been neglected. But this film does little to redress that injustice—save in the sense of political correctness. You can’t, on the one hand, claim history ignored people of color and then produce a movie that is so devoid of authenticity it ruins the claim you set out to make.

It might grab headlines in The Hollywood Reporter or Deadline–“An All Black Western!”—which would stroke morals and egos, but it doesn’t make The Harder They Fall a good or plausible western.

The title, at first blush, recalls the Humphrey Bogart/Rod Steiger film of the same name from 1956, about a palooka boxer who’s a giant but can’t stay on his feet. It’s a measured and intimate story about corruption and the death of a career. Netflix’s The Harder They Fall doesn’t seem to employ the title as any kind of irony. It’s true, a lot of people get shot and hit the dirt, but to illustrate any point or expand on a dramatic statement, in the present case, the title of the movie is arcane.

Moving past the title, we find that, though the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments freed the slaves and gave them due process and equal protection under the laws, it did not free movies featuring an all African-American cast from cliché ad absurdum. Quick draw artists who never miss, burlesques with boa-wearing vamps, and stare downs. O my the stare downs.

There were more hard looks, more trash talk and sass mouth in this movie than in the most verbose scenes of White Men Can’t Jump. Except, there was very little levity in The Harder They Fall. It felt more like The Wire with saddlebags.

The plot starts off simply enough; a straight-up revenge story. But that thread gets lost betwixt and between an ensemble cast and a labyrinthine story line about rival gangs, bank robberies, train stick ups, lawmen pursuing quarry, and love lost and recaptured. Sound schmaltzy enough? Well, it is.

This doesn’t include the hip hop and reggae sound track. These people did exist, but they weren’t beat boxing by the water trough or practicing ska on the buckboard of a stagecoach.

For a film that purports, at its outset, to be righting a historical wrong, very little feels accurate. To be sure, saloon doors swing, men wear waistcoat watches, and women sport parasols, but every actor possesses a perfect smile and every set appears swept clean, often with an art deco palate.

So bright and splendid is the set construction, The Harder They Fall appears to be auditioning for theme park status at the same time it’s rolling in theaters and on streamers.

It’s not all bad news. If you aren’t looking to take this film too seriously there’s a pulpy, Tarantino-esque feel here that many will enjoy a la The Hateful Eight. The performances are wonderful and the cast is well known and top notch, but as my old screenwriting mentor was fond of saying: great acting can’t save a bad script. As rich as the tapestry of this movie is and as skilled as the players are, The Harder They Fall is a bit of a muddle.

End. Of. Story.

Blast Magazine Rating: 2 out of 4 stars

About The Author

Randy Steinberg has been a Blast film critic since 2011. He has a Master's Degree in Film/Screenwriting from Boston University. He taught screenwriting at BU from 1999-2010. In 2020, he joined the Boston Online Critics Film Association (BOFCA). Randy can be contacted at his website: www.RandySteinbergWriting.com

One Response

Leave a Reply