Ivanhoe "Ivan" Martin is a poor Jamaican man in desperate search of work. He leaves his rural home after his grandmother dies to live with his impoverished wastrel mother in Kingston, but is rebuffed. Before he can even locate her he has all his possessions stolen in a con by a street vendor he naively trusted. He later meets Jose, who takes him to see Django, a Spaghetti Western. Excited by urban life, he tries to get a job but repeatedly fails.
He finally drifts into the circle of a Christian preacher. There he finds menial work, and in his spare time he turns an abandoned bicycle frame into a working bicycle, then uses it to run errands for his new boss. He gets into trouble with the preacher after he shows sexual interest in the Preacher's young virginal female ward, Elsa, then with her assistance uses his church for rehearsing secular songs he intends to record.
After being brusquely run off by the preacher he returns to the church compound to collect his bicycle, but finds an older, much bigger former colleague has appropriated it. Challenged to take it back, Ivan does so, avoiding a broken bottle his opponent wields before slashing the man with a knife, for which he is sentenced by the local authorities to a violent whipping.
Ivan interests a prominent record producer in a song he writes and performs, "The Harder They Come", but in spite of trying to wrangle more only gets the standard exploitative $20 offer for it. He dreams of stardom upon its release, but the stranglehold the producer maintains on the local music industry through payola condemns Ivan to obscurity. He takes up with his lover, who has been violently driven away in a jealous rage by the preacher for "fornication".
Eventually Jose offers Ivan an opportunity to make a modest living running marijuana, moving the drug from the country to the city on a motorbike as part of a large police-protected network. When Ivan complains about the poor pay and what he obtusely believes is high risk, being oblivious to the collusion with the authorities that makes the thriving enterprise possible, Jose sets up a take-down for him with the corrupt local police official running the protection racket, Detective Jones. On Ivan's next trip he is flagged down by a policeman who routinely had waved him by, panics, and shoots the officer, who dies from his wounds and crashing his motorcycle.
Next, Ivan has a tryst with Jose's girlfriend. While he is in bed with her, the police surround the room and try to capture him. He shoots his way out, killing three officers. On the run, he returns to shoot and wound the girl, believing she and Jose betrayed him. He then finds Jose and pursues him, shooting at him but missing.
Ivan returns to the countryside. He is again betrayed and the police catch up with him, leading to another shootout and escape. Ivan seeks support from his closest drug-dealer friend, Pedro, who helps him hide out. Jones, tasked with rounding Ivan up, temporarily shuts down his lucrative protection racket in order to starve the entire community its network financially supports into ratting Ivan out.
Meanwhile, the record mogul re-releases Ivan's song in order to capitalize on his notoriety, which becomes a hit and fans his fame as a charismatic rebel. Enamoured of this image, Ivan has staged photographs of himself made posing as a flagrant two-gun outlaw. He sends them to the press, which is resistant to print them. He then steals a flashy car from a resort hotel and drives it aimlessly around the countryside in a reverie.
Pedro then advises Ivan to escape to Cuba. A rendezvous with a vessel bound there is arranged, but Ivan is ambushed by a police assault team while seeking to approach it and is unable to drag himself up a boarding ladder thrown over its stern. He passes out from his wound and finds himself beached ashore. The police approach, armed with automatic rifles; he comes out, holding his two guns, and is shot. The film ends with a woman's torso gyrating to the sound of Ivan's song over the credits.
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