For many decades, the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and parts of the 90s, the western genre has been stable at the box office. Like what we’re seeing in today’s comic book-based films. The genre hasn’t been as popular within the last 20 years or so, there’s been some decent western that would pop-once in a while; the most recent successful one was Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED. Now we have a new western from musician-turned-filmmaker Jeymes Samuel aka The Bullits and the film is a sleek and fun homage to the spaghetti westerns of the 60s.
As the film opens, a mysterious stranger arrives at a home of a preacher when he, his wife and son are about to have a meal. The stranger proceeds to kill the preacher and his wife. He left the son alive but scarred the boy by carving the symbol of a cross into his forehead. Years later, that same boy has grown up to be a well-known outlaw named Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) who robs other bank robbers. Love has also been hunting down people involved in the murder of his parents. The main culprit he’s after is Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), a ruthless criminal and killer. Buck who is supposedly serving a life sentence in Yuma prison but is soon freed by a gang led by the sociopathic Trudy Smith (Regina King) and the very sneaky sharpshooter Cherokee Bill (Lakeith Stanfield).
Meanwhile, Nat’s gang has robbed a shipment of gold that originally belonged to Rufus, who needs the money to run the town of Redwood City. Rufus wants to create some sort of utopia for black people, but he wants it to be under his complete control and if anyone objects, he’ll kill them. Upon learning about Rufus’ escape, Nat teams up with Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo), the lawman who originally captured Rufus, his ex-lover Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz) a saloon operator and singer, Cuffee (Danielle Deadwyler) a tough as nail saloon guard, sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi) and Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler), a young gunman eager to prove his superior speed with a pistol. Their plan is to head to Redwood City and take down Rufus and his gang for good.
The screenplay is credited to Jeymes Samuel and Boaz Yakin, it’s nothing new when it comes to the western storyline. Just like many other western films, its main theme here is revenge. Both writers tried to create an epic storyline but came up a bit short. For one, the lack of character development of the main characters was a big letdown. They wanted to just throw the audience right into the story and didn’t really give many details on either the hero or main villain.
Elba’s Buck is supposed to be this mythical villain since many characters in the film always refer to him as the devil. I’m assuming that Samual wanted this character to be like Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes in Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. But we don’t know much about him except that he’s pure evil. Majors’ Nat Love is kind of a Robin Hood character but again, we just assume that he became that way because of what happened to him when he’s little boy. This lack of characters development really hurt the climatic confrontation between the two men when there’s a big revelation. Thankfully, the three female supporting characters were more well defined.
Samuel really wanted to show that he’s a fan of the old westerns, so many of the visual elements were burrowed from Leone’s films and the bloody climatic shootout was reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah’s bloodbath climax of THE WILD BUNCH. The opening dinner scene was taken directly from the opening of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. I don’t have problem with filmmakers that “burrowed” from other filmmakers from the past. As long that they can inject some of their own style into the film and I thought Samuel did come up with some of his own visual flares.
Speaking of visual, the cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. is some of the best I’ve seen this year. The film was shot digitally on Panavision cameras and film grains were added in post-production to give the film that rustic filmic look. Since he’s musician, Samuel also composed the film and it’s a spectacular soundtrack. The theme is combination of modern hip hop mix in with Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western.
The performances by the actors were great all around. As mentioned earlier, it’s a shame that the main hero and villain just didn’t have much development. Jonathan Majors is on the roll after his excellent turn in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY. Hopefully, he’ll cast in more heroic action role, he’s great in action scenes. I’m a fan of Idris Elba and it’s a shame that he didn’t have much to do in this film except to look evil. I thought the two main female characters were much more well defined and their confrontation in the climax was so brutal and absolute blast to watch. Regina King looked like she has a great time playing a nasty villain.
While it’s disappointing that the main characters were undeveloped, I’m still happy to have seen this film. We don’t get to see a western with mostly black actors that often and it’s great that Netflix was willing to make it happen. I’m quite sure that most major studios wouldn’t have greenlit this script unless there’s a white character that’s involved in the story, and of course that character will have to be played by a super star actor. The film is a lot of fun with excellent cinematography and killer soundtrack. If you’re a fan of the western genre, then this is a no brainer.
So have you seen Netflix’s The Harder They Fall? Well, what did you think?