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Danielle Deadwyler, Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz

“THE HARDER THEY FALL” My rating: C+ (Netflix)

130 minutes | MPAA rating: R

If “The Harder They Fall” is a thematic and narrative mess, at least it’s a moderately entertaining mess.

Jaymes Samuel’s film aspires to Leone-level mythology while delivering an all-black (or mostly black) Western adventure.

Samuel and co-writer Boaz Yakin have come up with a wholly fictional (and wholly implausible) plot, but they’ve populated it with historic figures…or at least characters who bear the names of real African American noteworthies like Bill Pickett, Stagecoach Mary Fields, Cherokee Bill and Jim Beckworth.

Those names are the most realistic thing about the film. The characters are paper thin (they sometimes accrue a simulacrum of substance through the sheer charisma of the performers) and nothing like psychological realism rears its head.

Similarly, the physical production is impressive without ever really being convincing.  This is an oddly spic-and-span version of the West…the horses bleed when shot but apparently they don’t defecate, given the pristine state of the streets.  The wardrobe choices — especially for the women characters — are quite wonderful in their eccentricity, but at the cost of constantly reminding us that we’re watching a movie.

Indeed, the model for “The Harder They Fall” is less the traditional Western than a Marvel movie.  Instead of a crew of specially-gifted superheroes we get two competing crews of specially-gifted and peculiarly-costumed gunfighters.

In a prologue we see outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) invade a remote farmhouse, shoot the husband and wife and terrorize their young son.

Years later that child has grown to be Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), an outlaw gang leader whose specialty is preying on other outlaws.  You see, Nat thirsts for revenge on Rufus, but that killer is serving a life sentence in prison. So he occupies himself with bothering the still-active remnants of Rufus’ gang.

But wouldn’t you know it…Rufus pulls strings and gets himself freed from stir to run amok once again.  You know it’s all going to end with a big shootout that will reduce a frontier town to rubble and a mano-a-mano confrontation between Nate and his nemesis.

The film is packed with terrific actors on both sides of the feud:  Ed Gathegi, Damon Wayans Jr., Lakeith Stanfield. Regina King is too good an actress to be stuck with a cardboard villainess like Trudy Smith, but by God she looks great in her all-black outfit topped by a bowler hat.

Regina King, Idris Elba, LaKeith Stanfield

Zazie Beetz is an alluring explosion of hair as saloon owner Mary Fields, who is also hero Nate’s love interest.

And two members of the Love Gang just about steal the show:  Danielle Deadwyler as Cuffee, a cross-dressing diminutive saloon bouncer and R.J. Cyler as Beckworth, one of those mouthy, pistol-spinning wannabe gunfighters who exude more bravado than common sense.

Oh, and let’s not forget Delroy Lindo as grizzled lawman Bass Reeves, who teams up with one band of outlaws to defeat an even worse bunch.

This is an Old West where white faces are peripheral at best. Most of the action unfolds in all-black burgs, and while one assumes this milieu would have been rife with racism, the film really isn’t interested in making a social statemtent. 

(Although there’s one elaborate visual joke: the black outlaws decide to rob a bank in a white town…and when I say “white” I mean really white.  The whole place — houses, storefronts, hitching posts, boardwalks — have been painted bright white. You’d have to shade your eyes on a cloudy day.)

Samuel gets playful with the soundtrack, employing bits of Morricone mischief but relying mostly on reggae.  

On the downside there are several moments of pure sadism that leave a bad taste. And the screenplay features a couple of long monologues that really only prove how much better Tarantino is at this sort of thing.

But, hey, the film looks great. Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography lovingly dwells on both the Western landscape and the faces of the players.

If it all never really comes together coherently, at least there’s plenty to look at.

| Robert W. Butler

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