The Harder They Come ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I'm so white, I knew some of these songs from Willie Nelson's Countryman album. It was a thrill to hear the original versions by Jimmy Cliff. I have a passing familiarity with Jamaica so I knew going into the film about things like rampant corruption and crime. As Michael Dare put it in his 2000 essay for Criterion, "It’s an anti-tourism film—violent and energetic, yet somehow managing to discreetly combine political realism with show-biz fantasy shootouts."

The Harder They Come starts off as Footloose (but with better music) before becoming À bout de souffle [Breathless]. It's easy at first to identify with Ivan (Cliff). He's the new kid in town with dreams of making it big as a singer, only to find himself in over his head in a dog-eat-dog world. Rooting for him comes easily, even during the first part of the film that feels formulaic and familiar.

What makes The Harder They Come so fascinating, though, isn't just that it then morphs into a crime drama with political commentary on the corruption of the drug trade. It's that even as the film changes tone and direction around him, Ivan remains the same. We see a change in Ivan after he capitulates and takes the $20 for his record, but that feels more like reassurance than a paradigm shift. For the most part, though, Ivan is the same guy at the end of the film that he is at the outset: a dreamer with stars in his eyes.

This, in turn, asks us to question the degrees by which we measure worthiness of sympathy. If we identified with Ivan in the beginning, and if Ivan didn't really change, then how do we feel about Ivan at the end? Do we feel betrayed? Do we remain on his side, seeing the police are little more than a stand-in for all his other adversaries? How much weight do those badges carry with us? Would it bother us if instead of shooting cops, Ivan had taken on competing drug traffickers?

It's easy for a lot of viewers to dismiss Ivan out of hand as a short-sighted, egocentric punk who couldn't leave well enough alone and got what he deserved in the end. I certainly don't endorse violence, much less shooting cops, but on a philosophical level there's a large part of me that remained sympathetic to Ivan through to the very end. Our society discourages, stifles and swindles countless people out of using their natural talents and pursuing things bigger than themselves, and it's in that context that Ivan's defiance resonates.

How The Harder They Come Entered My Flickchart

The Harder They Come > Made --> #784
Sometimes I like inept criminals more than tragic, defiant ones...but I always prefer great music. The Harder They Come easily bests Made here.

The Harder They Come < Ben-Hur --> #784
The music and commentary may be more interesting in The Harder They Come, but few films have exhibited such amazing scale as Ben-Hur.

The Harder They Come < Con Air --> #784
The Harder They Come is meatier, but there's something about the frivolity of Con Air that appeals to me.

The Harder They Come < One Hour Photo --> #784
The Harder They Come is relevant even 41 years later and its music is terrific, but I have to go with One Hour Photo here. It's probably the only Robin Williams performance I really like.

The Harder They Come > The King of California --> #735
Michael Douglas is fun to watch in The King of California, but The Harder They Come is easily the more compelling and satisfying film here.

The Harder They Come > The Ring Two --> #711
I liked The Ring Two, but it wasn't as striking as The Harder They Come.

The Harder They Come > Tin Cup --> #698
Tin Cup is likable enough, but it lacks the substance and music of The Harder They Come.

The Harder They Come > Creeptales --> #692
Creeptales is a fun little horror anthology, but this match goes to The Harder They Come for its social relevance and music.

The Harder They Come > Give Up Yer Aul Sins --> #689
Give Up Yer Aul Sins is sweet and good for a laugh, but that's not enough to win against the scathing commentary of The Harder They Come.

The Harder They Come > Saving Silverman --> #688
I got some laughs out of Saving Silverman, but I find myself favoring The Harder They Come here. Maybe it's the music? Reggae > Neil Diamond.

The Harder They Come < The Hamiltons --> #688
The Harder They Come is interesting and engaging throughout, but there's something about the envelop-pushing shamelessness of The Hamiltons that I dig.

The Harder They Come entered my Flickchart at #688/1567