The Harder They Fall (130 mins)
Verdict: Swaggering but derivative
The 65th London Film Festival (LFF) got off to a swaggering start at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday evening, with a world premiere of the Netflix film The Harder They Fall, a brutal Western not to be confused with the 1956 feature of the same name, which packed a different kind of punch.
That was a film noir about boxing, in which Humphrey Bogart gave his final screen performance.
This one marks the feature-length directing debut of Jeymes Samuel, the British musician who aptly enough glories in the stage name ‘The Bullitts’.
One of the producers is Shawn Carter, who also has a pseudonym: Jay-Z. And their film takes pot-shots at the overwhelming number of white Westerns, in which black characters, if they’re in evidence at all, are tangential to the story.
This one turns the tables as decisively as a saloon brawl. It’s a film about black men and women, with a few white walk-ons.
Jonathan Majors is pictured above in the film. This is story-telling conspicuously and often laboriously indebted to Spike Lee, whose most recent film, the wildly overrated Da 5 Bloods, also for Netflix, starred both Majors and Lindo
The cast list is impressive. The lead is the fast-rising Jonathan Majors, but Idris Elba lends established star wattage, with LaKeith Stanfield, Regina King and Delroy Lindo among the supporting acts.
And although the film begins with a caption telling us that the story about to follow is fictional, it adds, practically with a drum roll . . . These. People. Existed.
Such wilful misuse of punctuation usually makes My. Hackles. Rise. But at least The Harder They Fall sets out its stall at the start, preparing us for a barrage of cinematic tricksiness that includes slow-mo, split screens and other devices favoured by one other director in particular.
This is story-telling conspicuously and often laboriously indebted to Spike Lee, whose most recent film, the wildly overrated Da 5 Bloods, also for Netflix, starred both Majors and Lindo.
The opening scene gives the narrative its springboard. In a remote house in the Old West, a clergyman and his wife are sitting down to eat with their young son. They are rudely interrupted by a merciless killer, who slaughters first the wife, then the minister, evidently by way of revenge. The boy is spared, but a cross is carved into his forehead.
Idris Elda is pictured above in the film. The Harder They Fall, as well as overflowing with cliches, offers much more style than substance
Years later, the boy with the cross has grown into a fearsome outlaw, Nat Love (Majors), whose gang robs another gang led from behind bars by the even-more-fearsome Rufus Buck (Elba).
When Buck is transported between prisons by train, heavily guarded by soldiers, his acolytes spring him. Now he wants reparations from Love’s gang, but Love has another form of justice in mind because, yes, Buck is the man who shot his pa.
Samuel, who also co-wrote the screenplay, spares us hardly a single Western cliche as all this unfolds, from the jibbering townsfolk held to ransom to the fierce tomboy quicker on the draw than any man. And every shoot-out gets a video-game body count.
I enjoyed a few of the comic flourishes, and, not unexpectedly, there’s a lively soundtrack, with some great soul and gospel music. Also, the premise of filling a Western with black characters and sidelining whites is undeniably timely.
But The Harder They Fall, as well as overflowing with cliches, offers much more style than substance. And Samuel not only wears his admiration for Lee on his sleeve, but also for Quentin Tarantino. We could all applaud his film’s originality, if only it weren’t so blatantly derivative.
Still, for all my reservations about its curtain-raiser, it’s marvellous to see the LFF tempting people back to cinemas with some top-notch offerings, especially with No Time To Die still working its thunder on box offices everywhere. If you’re in London or able to get there, I recommend a look at the programme.
There are some really interesting films showing, including a couple I’ve already anointed with five stars after seeing them at other festivals, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter and Eva Husson’s Mothering Sunday, both of which happen to feature Olivia Colman, although the stars of the latter, a gorgeous adaptation of the Graham Swift novel, are The Crown’s Josh O’Connor and a beguiling Australian actress, Odessa Young.
I’m also greatly looking forward to seeing Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical film Belfast, and King Richard, a sports biopic in which Will Smith plays the obsessively driven Richard Williams, father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena. This year’s LFF, it seems fair to say, is serving up something for everyone.
The Harder They Fall will have a cinema release later this month, before streaming on Netflix from November 3.
The BFI London Film Festival runs until October 17, details at bfi.org.uk/lff
We’ve lurched into an Addams family road trip
The Addams Family 2
Those of us with fond memories of the venerable TV version of The Addams Family, or even of the original 1930s cartoon strip, have been haunted already by several big-screen reboots, not least the 1991 live-action film with Anjelica Huston as Morticia, and its 1993 sequel.
Then came the animated version two years ago, which was OK; and now there’s a sequel to that, too, with the same heavyweight voice cast led by Charlize Theron, Oscar Isaac, Chloe Grace Moretz and Bette Midler.
Story-wise, The Addams Family 2 (PG, 93 mins) is a pretty laboured affair, falling back on the old stand-by for all comedy writers who can’t think of anything cleverer — the road trip.
Those of us with fond memories of the venerable TV version of The Addams Family, or even of the original 1930s cartoon strip, have been haunted already by several big-screen reboots
Gomez (Isaac) decides that his sullen and remote daughter Wednesday (Moretz) needs some family-bonding time, so off they set across America, visiting all the standard sights, from Niagara Falls to the Grand Canyon. Left alone at home, 101-year-old grandmama (Midler) duly throws a wild party.
Meanwhile, in a parallel storyline, it appears that Wednesday might have been swapped at birth and could actually be the biological daughter of a scheming scientist called Cyrus Strange (Bill Hader).
Wednesday certainly seems to have some talent for chemistry, having crossed dim Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) with her clever pet squid, Socrates.
But all this is lazily plotted and not nearly funny or indeed creepy enough. It’s surely time to let the Addamses rest in peace.
A modestly engaging documentary called Romantic Road (12A, 82 mins) whisks us on a very different road trip, chronicling the adventures of elderly, upper-class English lawyer Rupert Grey and his wife Jan as they drive for more than 5,000 miles across the Indian sub-continent in their 1930s Rolls-Royce.
Some of their friends reckon that she ‘wears the trousers’ in the relationship, but there’s precious little evidence of that in a film which is really a celebration of Rupert’s extreme singularity, and his determination never to take an easy or obvious route through life, or indeed through the Himalayas, no matter how much Jan would prefer the safer option.
JOHN And The Hole (***, 15, 103 mins) is a psychological not-quite-thriller, about an adolescent boy (Charlie Shotwell) from a well-heeled American family who one day decides to drug his parents (Jennifer Ehle, Michael C. Hall) and older sister (Taissa Farmiga) and drop them into a remote abandoned bunker he’s discovered, from which they cannot apparently escape.
Before all this, John has asked his mother what it feels like to be an adult, and the story explores the role reversal of him suddenly holding all the shots, with his parents made needy and vulnerable. A strange but thought-provoking film.
All in cinemas now.