Celebrating its 50th anniversary, Perry Henzell’s classic 1972 crime thriller makes its way once again to British screens. With a sensational soundtrack, a terrific central performance from reggae master Jimmy Cliff, and violence as unvarnished as Mean Streets, The Harder They Come has lost none of its excitement.
Said to have brought reggae and Jamaican culture to the world, The Harder They Come is of undoubted historical significance, but what makes it truly endure is its raw, thrilling vitality. Its first act, which sees Ivan (Cliff) come to the city from the countryside seeking fame and fortune as a musician, is loosely plotted but no less gripping for it. Cliff himself is a wellspring of charisma, grifting and charming his way into casual work, the affections of a stern preacher’s young ward, Elsa (Janet Bartley), and eventually an audition with a local music producer. Meanwhile, the rough, gritty cinematography captures Jamaica’s vibrancy and its desperate poverty with conviction.
For the first forty minutes or so, it’s simply a pleasure to hang around with such a gallant, but as Ivan resorts to ever nastier behaviour the plot tightens, like the proverbial noose around his neck. Frustrated at being ripped off by record producer Hilton (Bob Charlton), Ivan turns to selling cannabis with his friend Pedro (Ras Daniel Hartman). Local Police Detective Ray (Winston Stona) controls the flow of drugs into the city to maintain relative peace with gang leader Jose (Carl Bradshaw). Before long, Ivan starts eyeing Jose’s throne, leading him down a path of violence that sees him become something of a folk hero as he mugs off the local police in their hunt for him. Inevitably, Ivan’s fate is sealed a bloody killing spree that has all the thrills of genre cinema without sacrificing the film’s earlier moments of humanity.
The Harder They Come may have been the first time non-Jamaican audiences saw Cliff or heard reggae music, but part of what is remarkable about Henzell’s film is how in sync it is with global cinematic culture. The film’s original posters capitalise on the contemporary boom in American blaxploitation cinema, while an early sequence in the cinema pays tribute to Sergio Corbucci’s classic Spaghetti Western, Django. Ivan delights in the extreme stylised violence but another patron reminds him that the hero inevitably dies in the final reel.
There’s a conscious experimentation with genre and exploitation cinema: The Harder They Come‘s two defining traits – violence and style – inform almost all of Ivan’s behaviour as he adopts the fashions and nihilism of the heroes of American and European cinema. Yet the world around him remains dully ambivalent and cruel in ways more complex and unpredictable than the characters he replicates.