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Movie Review: 'The Harder They Fall'

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

Authorities in New Mexico are continuing to investigate the fatal shooting last week on the set of the Western movie "Rust." The shooting involved a prop gun fired by actor Alec Baldwin. A live round inside the gun killed the film's cinematographer and injured the director. The incident has raised safety concerns in Hollywood and elsewhere about the use of prop guns on sets, with some in the industry calling for an end to it altogether.

Another Western is just out and making news for the right reasons, according to our critic Bob Mondello. "The Harder They Fall" opens this weekend in theaters and starts streaming on November 3. The film boasts an A-list cast, including Idris Elba and Regina King. And yes, it has lots of guns and gunfighters. Bob says it also boasts lots of style to spare.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE I COME")

BARRINGTON LEVY: (Singing) Here I come.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: A train in the middle of nowhere chugging toward an outlaw gang on horseback, Regina King in a long coat and bowler hat, staring down the engineer from her perch right on the tracks. With a squeal of brakes, he manages to stop before hitting her. But he's ticked. And she's armed with a pistol.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HARDER THEY FALL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) The hell are you doing? That ain't no way to board a train, you damn, stupid...

MONDELLO: And he should maybe not have led with a slur.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HARDER THEY FALL")

LAKEITH STANFIELD: (As Cherokee Bill) You know, he might could have said nincompoop.

REGINA KING: (As Trudy Smith) We ain't no nincompoop.

MONDELLO: Regina King is treacherous Trudy Smith, here with a gang to free their jailed leader, Rufus Buck.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HARDER THEY FALL")

KING: (As Trudy Smith) Open it.

MONDELLO: What they don't know is that while they're doing that, they're being robbed by another gang that includes Nat Love, Stagecoach Mary Fields and a quick-draw showoff named Jim Beckwourth.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HARDER THEY FALL")

RJ CYLER: (As Jim Beckwourth) Admit it. I'm lightning with the blam-blams (ph).

MONDELLO: Also on-screen, Bill Pickett, Cherokee Bill, Sheriff Bass Reeves. And I'm telling you all their names because while the film's revenge-crazed plot is made up, these people are real. A quick Google check will establish that they were celebrated Black frontiersmen and frontierswomen in the 1800s. The film has brought them all together, though they probably never met in real life, because they've been mostly erased from Hollywood's Wild West. They are plenty vivid here, not just Idris Elba's murderous Buck, smashing the gold teeth of a sheriff he hired and levying attacks on his townsfolk.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HARDER THEY FALL")

IDRIS ELBA: (As Rufus Buck) Nobody to leave town till we collect it all.

MONDELLO: But also Jonathan Majors as Nat Love, who spent a lifetime tracking him down.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HARDER THEY FALL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Where is he?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Where is who?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'm speaking English, yeah?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Sound like English to me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Mmm hmm.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Where is Rufus Buck?

MONDELLO: And Zazie Beetz as Nat Love's gal, Stagecoach Mary, who risks her life by tangling with her opposite number.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HARDER THEY FALL")

ZAZIE BEETZ: (As Stagecoach Mary) Ghastly Gertrude Smith.

KING: (As Trudy Smith) Now, I prefer treacherous Trudy myself. But I'll take it. What brings you to my town?

BEETZ: (As Stagecoach Mary) I heard Rufus Buck was back.

KING: (As Trudy Smith) News travels fast.

BEETZ: (As Stagecoach Mary) I have an offer he might want to hear about.

KING: (As Trudy Smith) Well, any offer you got, you can make it to me.

BEETZ: (As Stagecoach Mary) I don't do business with the help.

MONDELLO: All of this is stylized to a cinema conscious fare-thee-well by first-time feature filmmaker Jeymes Samuel, who is such an accomplished - multi-hyphenate here - director, co-writer, producer, composer and singer-songwriter that when a character named James showed up briefly, I have expected him to be playing him. But he stays behind the camera, blending Tarantino-esque splatter and seriously hip soundtrack with open skies that would make John Ford proud, along with ambushes, shootouts, holdups and just one broad wink about race, a visual joke when the film visits a lily-white town that's as whitewashed - literally - as Hollywood's Westerns have mostly been metaphorically, a brief reminder that "The Harder They Fall" is colorful in very smart ways. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE I COME")

BARRINGTON LEVY: (Singing) Whoa, seen. Here I come (vocalizing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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