“Good and bad live in everybody's heart,” says Joe Smith, the hero reluctantly occupying the chewy center of his self-named film, which dropped last Friday on Amazon Prime with less fanfare than the biopic of an unloved sidekick. Despite his character’s cheesesteaky wisdom, if Sylvester Stallone contains evil, it’s evil of the most condonable kind. He’s had the twinkle of an uncle for the last 45 years, staying in such admirable shape that it’s never progressed into wistfulness, as though he alone has the secret to never becoming a grandpa. He still says every line like he’s walking home with you and happened to think of it. The same limp-lipped wisdom that caused "hundreds of young Italians to get retarded,” as he put it once, pursuing ill-conceived dreams of boxing glory after seeing Rocky, is a poor excuse to watch Samaritan even if it’s the only one. The marketing team had it exactly right, getting his remarkably smooth mug on the poster. I doubt this article would exist without it.
Samaritan is squeezed into an unloved corner of superhero filmmaking occupied by lax one-offs that never make bank on the genre’s promises. It has the strict budgeting of a kick-back comedy like Hancock but the grimacing seriousness of a Frank Miller op-ed. With a more identifiable style, it might have been graphically off-the-wall like the misunderstood The Spirit or the expressionistic trash of the second Ghost Rider movie, when the guys behind Crank got Nicolas Cage to spit fire from his eyes before the visual effects were even finished. But Samaritan is as prim and predictable as Rocky Balboa outside of the chunky action scenes, in which Stallone lets loose a little (you get the sense that if he isn’t really throwing around these whippersnappers, he probably could be). There are times during those fights when stuntpeople get pulled on real wires through real pyrotechnics that melted my cinematic universe-weary heart. Samaritan sometimes gives the feeling (at this point, it's near to a form of loneliness), that this is closer to classic filmmaking than the modern impression of this genre. There's a fight in an alley that ends with a stunt involving turning over a single car that almost had me clapping, just because I believed in it.
But the film’s major gap is in its pacing language, which skips around like arrhythmia, sending young protagonist Sam (Javon “Wanna” Walton) down dead-end plot errands until erratically spending enough time on-screen with Stallone that they seem pally enough to be in the same plot together. The film is so confident in its exposition that it repeats it in different mediums, from the stylized animation of the opening to the forced flashbacks at the halfway point that pinch you back awake (“remember this?”). The story goes that Samaritan and Nemesis, twin superheroes with different vigilante ideologies, killed each other at a power plant decades ago. Now added to cultural legend, people see Samaritan in the street in every old janitor and muscley bus driver (despite not knowing what either of them looks like, they never see Nemesis). They hope for the hero’s return out of some ambiguous longing to not be at the mercy of street gang revolutionaries, whom any villain could convince with dime store Communist rhetoric to set the city on fire and steal all its televisions.
Maybe from wishful thinking (or a lack of imagination), they assume that Samaritan’s survival will help them, though the film never gets around to making it seem like there would be much of a difference if he was still around to boot-stomp a vandal here or there. Since only one of the two anti-heroes exists in the present-day of the film (and all the flashbacks hide the two under welder’s masks), the jumps in time don't build anything in the film's universe, other than this one plot point. A film like Stallone’s Judge Dread used to be considered the height of bad cinematic manners, but even the capacity to be laughed at produced more of a response than Samaritan supplies in its mushily watchable 101 minutes.
Still, Stallone gives better than a paycheck performance – he believed at least some of what Samaritan is saying (there's a laid-back scene involving ice cream and superpower exposition that only he could pull off). But even as Sam wanders between odd jobs for his criminal acquaintances, inching the plot toward each predictable beat, the film deflects its own progression. It implies an escalation in his misunderstanding of good vs evil without demonstrating one, as though the tropes of the genre will work their magic so long as you mention them. Even Sam's mom (Dascha Polanco) doesn't have a full scene with a full chunk of the drama (she's always cooking but never eating). At one point she jumps down Joe's throat ("Some hero you are") with absolutely no reason to. The screenplay just needed "that" beat.
Until the final scenario, when the film forces conflict on a series of unconnected beats, the script hardly has any concept of progression or even low and high points (Joe trains Sam in the art of fighting in exactly one little clip, which like the rest of the film's ideas needed a sequel or two in the story to sell as worth it). Like all its developments, the ending, in its violent catharsis (violent but not gory), is just another form of a mid-point. Even against Stallone's admirable yet bummy wisdom, Sam capably acts the part of a concerned kid. But he's never too far from a satisfied grin, almost like Stallone said something else to him behind the camera and made him laugh. The editors Evans and Beaudreau always take that look as an advantage, assuming that any moment of levity is the opportune place to cut to the next scene. They give the whole film a slap-dash feeling of weightlessness like every scene has to end with a reaction of some kind. They knew they had to cut it for appearances, if not for effect.
The villain, played by Pilou Asbæk, has a bit of Kiefer Sutherland Lost Boys energy and occasionally dresses like the Epic Movie version of Christopher Nolan’s Bane, though never materializes anything as fun as that combination sounds. More intriguing is his sidekick, a muscley chick played by Sophia Tatum who snaps her teeth like a piranha and whom the film woefully underuses. The superhero concept deserves small-scale storytelling like this since set-pieces have a nasty habit of burying personalities. The levels of production in this genre have reached worker's rights-violating levels of excess, where Disney animators are leaving the studio with awful stories to tell about working 70-hour weeks on productions destined to be criticized for rushed visual effects. Against that backdrop, Samaritan admirably avoids an over-expanded scope. But it also dodges introspection like a boxer weaving around predictable blows, leaving it stranded in the middle of the ring it built for itself. If it was any triter, it would have been Hallmark’s new superhero film rather than Amazon’s. The best argument it makes is not in defense of itself but in appreciation of how spoiled we were 20 years ago, when Unbreakable came out and only three in every five critics said it was worth seeing.
Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Amazon Studios
Cast & Crew
Bragi F. Schut (screenplay and book)
Marc Olivant and Renzo Podesta (book)
|Joe Smith/Samaritan/Nemesis||Sylvester Stallone|
|Sam Cleary||Javon "Wanna" Walton|
|Tiffany Cleary||Dascha Polanco|
|Albert Casier||Martin Starr|