Western history buffs should be warned, or at least notified, that while many of the major characters in the story share the same names as actual people who lived and died in the Old West — including Nat Love Bass Reeves, Stagecoach Mary,, Jim Beckwourth, and Cherokee Bill — the events that they take part in are mostly made-up nonsense. They bear as much relation to reality as the events of a dreamscape Western like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” “The Quick and the Dead,” and “Posse” (to name just three Westerns that this one cribs from) or gangster movies “Dillinger” and “The Untouchables,” major events of which were so cheerfully ludicrous that they might as well have been taking place on another planet, or in an alternate dimension.
But this is a feature of the movie, not a bug. The entire project feels like a bit of a lark or an indulgence, up until the point when it wipes the cocky grin off its face, embraces the melodramatic aspects of its central storyline, and becomes, by turns, an earnest romance, a family tragedy, and a quasi-mythological story about how violence begets more violence, whether it’s experienced in a saloon, on dusty streets, or in the privacy of a family home. (Three different characters in “The Harder They Fall” talk about their experiences with domestic violence.)
Jonathan Majors, who came out of nowhere a couple of years ago to become one of the most reliable of leading men, stars as Nat Love, first depicted in flashback as a terrified child whose mother and father are murdered by the outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba). As a parting gift, Buck pulls his dagger and inscribes a crucifix into the boy’s forehead. This scar marks the film’s hero as meaningfully as the vertical sabre-scar on the Outlaw Josey Wales’s’ face marked him. As an adult, Nat becomes a feared gunslinger and outlaw, and eventually finds himself embroiled in a combination adventure and revenge mission targeting the same man who killed his parents. There are quick-draws, large-scale gunfights, horse stunts and chases, a train robbery, multiple bank robberies, and a couple of handheld combat scenes as good as any ever staged in a western (with unabashedly modern fight choreography, like something out of a Bond or Bourne film).