Harder, Quentin Tarantino’s long-awaited follow-up to Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction, features Harvey Keitel as Sonny Graniano, a hardened lifer-convict, who is accidentally paroled due to a Y2K bug in the California State Prison System’s computers. Keitel’s cellmate, “Slick” (Samuel L. Jackson) once told Sonny about his hidden cache of diamonds in LA, believing Keitel would never be released. As Keitel is escorted to freedom, Slick clings from his cell bars and threatens Sonny in the awesome cadence of an Old Testament prophet: “If you take my rocks, I will search the sun, the moon, and the stars and cut thee down with a mighty hand!”—to which Keitel smiles condescendingly.
Sonny quickly makes his way to LA, cruising down the freeway, singing along mirthfully to forgotten classic rock songs of the 1970s (all of which appear on the new Harder soundtrack). The audience is supposed to be struck by the incongruities in Sonny’s character: soulful singer yet a convict, militant anti-smoker yet an alcoholic.
Sonny encounters a motley assortment of low-lifes during his quest for the diamonds, including Jonesy, an animated cartoon aficionado/incipient heroin addict (Tim Roth), and the ravishing Lola (Jamie Lee Curtis), the custodian of Slick’s diamonds. Jonesy breaks into an ostensibly hilarious monologue about the aesthetic superiority of “The Flintstones” over “The Simpsons,” and offers other proof of his (and Tarantino’s) intimacy with popular culture.
Jamie Lee Curtis’ Lola convincingly pretends to be a clueless wench, concealing from Sonny the whereabouts of the diamonds. But her grating, whiny voice drives Sonny to paroxysms of rage, and after she smokes in his new Ford Taurus one too many times, Sonny empties his Smith & Wesson revolver into her torso (prompting hysterical laughter, loud applause, and even cheers in the audience). But in an ironic reversal, Sonny takes a Camel Light from Lola’s bloody pack, and like a true Tarantino character, smokes with a gusto that presages a short, life-long addiction.
Meanwhile, Slick has escaped from jail, and assembled a gang to secure the diamonds and kill Sonny. Slick exhorts his troops violently, using the “n-word” more times than the word “the.”
With Lola dead, Sonny ransacks her apartment, and discovers the key to a locker at a local gun club, which he concludes must contain the diamonds. Sonny, Slick and his gang, and the police (who are tailing Sonny for Lola’s murder) all arrive at the gun club simultaneously. A three-way shoot-out erupts, and the gun club is well-nigh destroyed, inciting many well-armed gun club patrons to fire upon Slick and the police out of sheer moral indignation.
After an epic shooting spree that spans nearly 15 minutes of screen time, only Sonny and Slick are alive, though both have been wounded repeatedly. The bloodied bag of diamonds lies on the floor between them. Slick says the diamonds will go to the “harder man,” to which Sonny replies: “I’m harder. I’m Sonny, like the sun that cooked them diamonds hard”—a geologically-challenged utterance that visibly perplexes even the wounded Slick. Then—each predator apparently satisfied that he has frightened the other with ominous words—they fire off their last rounds of ammunition, missing everything. They both crawl along the floor, smearing blood everywhere, and Slick opens the bag, only to find glass cubes and a note that says: “Sorry Slick—Love, Lola.” Sonny and Slick eye each other, momentarily united by a mutual hatred of the dead Lola, before both die.
Then Tim Roth’s addled heroin addict/cartoon critic emerges from the shadows, opens another locker actually containing the diamonds, walks calmly to his Isuzu Rodeo, and drives into the sunset to the tune of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond—Part 3”.
Harder shows that Tarantino can still deliver all that is expected of him: ignorance-validating references to popular culture, a lucrative use of product placement, neo-post-ironic asides in lieu of emotional engagement, and violence so gratuitous that now well-trained Tarantino audiences laugh like seals at his inhuman audacity.
Harder is a sure-fire blockbuster.
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