The Harder They Fall, the feature directorial debut of Jeymes Samuel, is awash in its influences, and that seems to be the point. The film is a mish-mash of Spaghetti Westerns, Sam Peckinpah, John Ford, and Howard Hawks, modernized with the rambunctious anachronisms of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Quentin Tarantino. Rather than loving homage — or even snaky theft — Samuel is interested in a sort of rectification, a find-and-replace for the cultural record. All of the major characters in The Harder They Fall are played by Black actors, which enhances the accuracy of the picture of the mythic American West, which was a more amenable area than other parts of the country in the years that encircled the Emancipation Proclamation. All of the central figures are based on real people who made their way across the rough frontier. It’s fiction wrung out of discarded history.
Samuel and his co-screenwriter, Boaz Yakin, start with dusty legacy and then let their imagination gallop wildly. The opening credits lay out the basics, introducing two different gangs, one led by Nat Love (Jonathan Major) and the other by Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). The plot depicts these leather-tough crews coming together and edging towards conflict. The storytelling is dense and messy, employing themes and incidents from countless oater predecessors: revenge missions, train and bank robberies, quickdraw showdowns, and races against time across the untamed landscape. There are towering saloons and stone-wall jail cells, good guys and bad guys with the slightest feints in the direction of murky middle ground. The movie proudly adopts the nasty burn of a slug of whiskey tossed back across a split lip.
Samuel’s ambition is clear, and he takes obvious glee in shooting and edited his film with lavish stylist. I haven’t encountered a Western so open to dynamics that skid right up to the cusp of cartoon since Sam Raimi’s jubilantly ludicrous The Quick and the Dead. Samuel assembles a dream cast — which also includes Regina King, LaKeith Stanfield, Delroy Lindo, and Zazie Beetz — and then drowns them out with the noisiness of grand intentions. There are sequences that burst with nicely calibrated exuberance, notably an extended fight scene between King and Beetz that is smartly staged and lands in the proper zone of excess. Too often, though, The Harder They Fall collapses under the weight of its own bombast.