The biggest problem with Samaritan, a brand new superhero movie starring the one and only Sylvester Stallone, is a lack of identity. That’s oddly fitting since the movie itself is about a young boy trying to figure out the identity of a man who lives in his neighbourhood. Is he the long-lost superhero Samaritan? Will the movie Samaritan ever figure out what it wants to be? The answers to those questions are “What do you think?” and “Not really.” But while Samaratin never quite coalesces into a fully formed film, there’s enough there that fans of the genre and Stallone will be entertained.
Directed by Julius Avery (Overlord) and written by Bragi F. Schut (based on his own comic of the same time), Samaritan is a hodgepodge remix of several familiar films and ideas. It’s a movie you definitely feel like you’ve seen before, even if you haven’t. Case in point, three films Samaratin draws DNA from, and I personally thought about while watching it, were Terminator 2, Unbreakable, and The Dark Knight — which sounds much more promising and exciting than I mean it to, so let’s explain.
Everything starts with Sam. Played by Euphoria’s Javon Walton, Sam is a young boy with a single mother (Dascha Polanco) who deals with bullies, economic hardship, peer pressure, and a belief that no one else has. Sam believes that a superhero named Samaritan, long believed to be dead, is not only alive, he’s a neighbourhood garbage man named Joe Smith (Stallone). There’s some back and forth between the two but after Sam sees that Joe is in fact, the indestructible, bulletproof superhero he believes him to be (that’s the Unbreakable part), the two develop an uneasy father/son relationship. That’s the Terminator 2 part.
The Dark Knight part comes from the film’s setting: a decaying urban landscape called Granite City which is on the brink of chaos, something that an evil criminal named Cyrus (Game of Thrones’ Pilou Asbæk) is hoping to exploit. Cyrus uses the iconography of Samaritan’s dead brother and rival, the evil Nemesis, to unite the city in destruction and looting… for reasons that aren’t very well definited. That’s where the wheels start to come off. When Samaritan starts to act like it’s concerned with people battling rising rents, lower wages, and other social problems, it seems like it’s going to be about something of substance. And maybe because Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are about villains using fear and intimidation to anger Gotham City and bring down the establishment, we assume that’s Cyrus’ motive too. But he also might just want to be a superhero himself. The film never makes his intentions or motivations clear.
Where Samaritan does succeed is in that father-son, mentor-mentee relationship between Joe and Sam. Sam is a tough, trustworthy kid struggling to find out who he really is, and through his desire to uncover Joe’s identity, he may do just that. Plus, Joe’s reluctance and Sam’s insistence make for great banter and when Joe’s identity is revealed, Sam’s excitement is infectious. Most of the credit there goes to Walton, who is wildly likable and charismatic in the lead. Stallone too is right in his wheelhouse as Joe, giving off a great blend of aw-shucks Rocky Balboa vibes mixed with intense, killer John Rambo vibes.
There’s also a very interesting, but unfortunately underbaked, mythology sprinkled into the film that discusses the origins of Samaritan and Nemesis, their epic battles, and what may have come of them. It begins with a comic book-inspired opening (which is cool but feels like it’s from a different film) and culminates in a satisfying third-act reveal that’s meant to tie up some of the film’s many loose ends. In that aim, it’s sort of successful, but the answers are held off for so long that you can’t help but think balancing them more throughout the film would have enriched the story and character building.
And yet, all of these elements, disjointed as they may be, are familiar and intriguing enough to keep you interested in what’s going to happen and what the film will reveal. Some of that is through big action set pieces which are tailor-made for Stallone’s impressive but ageing physique. Lots of throwing and smashing big objects, less fluid movement. The downside to that is the dynamic direction Avery exhibited with his last film, Overlord, feels all but absent. You never quite feel the touch or vision of a director who had a clear intention with the film. Probably because the film itself never has a clear intention of what it wants to say. In the end, it says a lot of things but none of its messages or themes stick.
All that said, while Samaritan ends up being slightly disappointing and underwhelming, it’s not a total wash. The narrative built out of bits and pieces from other successful stories does a commendable job of building its own superhero world. But the fact that Samaritan doesn’t have decades of history to draw from ends up being rather obvious in how surface everything about it becomes. Ultimately, while I’m guessing we’ll never see another Samaratin film, it is a character and world that, in theory, did leave me wanting more. And that’s a minor success.
Samaritan was originally scheduled to be a theatrical release but now debuts exclusively on Prime Video on August 26.
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