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Two very different American frontiers are on display in this week’s original streaming releases. For Netflix, Jeymes Samuels — aka The Bullitts — directs the western The Harder They Fall, reimagining the lives of real black cowboys and outlaws within the context of an old-fashioned revenge story.
Meanwhile on Apple TV+, Miguel Sapochnik of Game of Thrones fame directs Finch, where Tom Hanks plays an ageing inventor crossing a barren American country.
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The Harder They Fall - Netflix
Jeymes Samuel's The Harder They Fall couldn’t exactly be called a revisionist western, as the film highlights upfront — twice — these characters were all real. It’s only really a revision in the sense that it makes a concerted effort to populate the film with far more Black characters than anyone else, and its playfulness with the traditional sounds of the genre.
Read more: New on Netflix in November
Perhaps Samuel’s finest touch is the replacement of the usual guitar twangs of westerns with reggae and dub rather than just hip-hop, the latter of which has become something of a go-to in adding an anachronistic touch to period film. Produced by Jay-Z, who has a couple of songs on the soundtrack himself, the influence of the film’s makers might be most strongly felt here, as Samuels himself and his more famous brother Seal also contribute music.
Sadly this is The Harder They Fall’s most original touch, as rest of the film just feels like surface. The writing feels hollow and misses as often as it hits, the action somewhat unremarkable.
There are bright spots: a fist fight set to a Fela Kuti track, a fun twist at the end of a fairly typical train robbery sequence, later some characters forebodingly note that their next destination is “a white town”, which turns out to be literally painted all white. But it still feels like too little stretched over a meandering runtime. Its action not inventive or exciting enough to make it feel fresh.
Watch a clip from The Harder They Fall
After the music, the next most appealing thing about The Harder They Fall is the sheer amount of talent packed into the film, with the excellent Jonathan Majors at the forefront as Nat Love, seeking revenge for his murdered parents.
LaKeith Stanfield, Regina King, Zazie Beetz and especially Delroy Lindo (who plays famous Black sheriff Bass Reeves, as a sort of father figure to Nat) are also magnetic presences.
Idris Elba’s villain does little but glower at the sidelines, so the actor’s charisma is left to do a lot of heavy lifting. Similarly Samuels can’t imagine anything for Beetz’ character other than making her a hostage, and spends a lot of the film at the sidelines.
Another thing that somewhat bothered me about The Harder They Fall came through its upfront insistence on it speaking for voices erased both in the history of the western film and American history - but, like other westerns before it, Indigenous people are made invisible, irrelevant to this frontier power fantasy. For better and for worse, the West of The Harder They Fall is effectively the same as its ever been, but imagines different characters in the lead.
Also on Netflix: The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Jumanji: The Next Level
Finch - Apple TV+
A film whose announcement was met with instant comparisons to Chappie online, Finch is a compelling and intimate flick from Tom Hanks and director Miguel Sapochnik. Hanks stars as Finch, a robotics engineer and one of the few survivors of a solar event that has left the world a barren wasteland. He's survived by living in an underground bunker for a decade, living in I Am Legend-esqe solitude with his dog, Goodyear.
Sapochnik, perhaps best known for his work on the large-scale battle episodes of Game of Thrones, finds a more intimate focus in his lensing here, even as his camera roams solemn environments. The muted colours of the apocalypse pop off the screen, and there’s a depth to the rusty oranges and dim greys. He also gets to show off a sense of humour that his work on Thrones didn’t always allow for. Of course Hanks bolsters this with his trademark kindliness, bringing a compelling warmth to the scenes of makeshift domesticity in his underground bunker. That tender tone, the robot inventions and precocious dog remind of a sort of post-apocalyptic Wallace & Gromit.
Watch a trailer for Finch
Eventually Finch he creates a robot, played by Caleb Landry Jones, to watch over Goodyear when he no longer can. The trio embarks on a perilous journey into a desolate American West, as Finch attempts to teach his creation, who names himself Jeff, various existential questions. As Jeff, Jones puts in a hilarious and sweet vocal performance that somehow builds a genuine character while doing an impression of Microsoft Sam — something made all the more strange when considering that the actor is typically known for playing menacing weirdos.
Still, Hanks is essentially playing across from nobody for half of this film and so the tenderness and buddy-comedy humour of his performance is the film’s anchor - that Hanks holds the attention on his own isn’t in itself surprising. What is surprising is how well most of this film clicks into place, Sapochnik finding a sweet and and entertaining picture out of a very unlikely premise.
Also on Apple TV+: The Velvet Underground
Those Who Wish Me Dead - NOW with a Sky Cinema Membership
The latest from writer-director Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Wind River, Sicario) Those Who Wish Me Dead takes something of a different tack in its mix of hired killers and American frontier and institutional evil.
Marking an acting comeback for superstar Angelina Jolie, the film follows her as she plays the survival expert Hannah, who charges herself with protecting a young boy finds himself pursued by two assassins in the Montana wilderness, and a forest fire threatening to consume them all.
Read more: New on Sky Cinema in November
It’s a wild premise, and Sheridan perhaps doesn’t fully capitalise on it as the film keeps a breakneck pace and lethal simplicity. But this straightforwardness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It simply feels like a fun action throwback to yesteryear, the kind of film you might randomly flip onto on television.
Anchored by electric performances from Jon Bernthal, and a steadfast lead in Jolie, Those Who Wish Me Dead doesn’t reinvent the wheel but it feels like a welcome break from the overly-busy blockbusters that frequently dominate in 2021.
Also new on NOW: Resident Evil