Samaritan makes a half-hearted case for the viability of Sylvester Stallone as a comic book superhero, but not for itself as a viable movie. Samaritan, (written by Bragi F. Schut, directed by Julius Avery, hitting Prime Video August 26th) feels a little like the comic book version of “Cleaver,” the horror movie conceived by Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos — a concept dreamed up by a grandiose producer and executed by hired gun creatives, with varying levels of buy-in on the concept.
The saturated cinematography is, well, at least a choice, and Sly, still filming fight scenes as a super strong old man at the age of 76, is occasionally compelling, but the casting is disastrous and the dialogue has the distinct flavor of a late homework assignment.
In a lengthy opening animation sequence (giving Samaritan the feel of having been pulled from a comic book even though it’s not) we learn that 25 years ago, two super-powered vigilante brothers, Samaritan, who fights to save humanity from their darker impulses, and his brother, Nemesis, who fights to punish humanity for their darker impulses, died in a climactic battle with each other. Or so we thought!
This is basically a Cliff’s Notes, genericized version of the central conflict in X-Men — where Professor X was the conciliatory leader of mutant superheroes and Magneto was his militant, terroristic foil, as an allegory for Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in the Civil Rights movement. Should we try to change the system from the inside or tear it down and start all over? Or do we just say to hell with it and punch each other for a while? We love more generic versions of stories we already know, don’t we, folks?
It’s probably not much of a spoiler to reveal that Stallone, topline-billed star of the movie Samaritan, plays the older, garbageman-in-a-green-hoodie version of the superhero Samaritan. No one knows his secret, but one kid, Sam, played by Javon “Wanna” Walton has some suspicions. Sam, like virtually everything else in this Nickelback song of a script, is sort of a stock character, the superhero “fanboy” who knows, and believes in, the hero more than the hero does himself.
Walton, best known for playing “Ashtray” in Euphoria, is about the worst choice imaginable for this role. Everything that makes him a good choice to play the younger brother of a xanny-addled, mumble-mouthed drug dealer in a spiritual ripoff of Kids works against him as the starry-eyed, voluble sidekick of a superhero in whatever Samaritan is supposed to be. Walton, a boxer and gymnast before he was discovered as an actor (the one scene of him shadow boxing is far more impressive than anything else he does, the kid very clearly has hands) seems solid at projecting silent menace. He evokes the sullen, jaded air of having seen too much for someone his age. Basically, the exact opposite qualities of the precocious, verbose, naively optimistic bullied fanboy they’re asking him to play here. His scenes are essentially a cacophony of sour notes, and he gets the most screen time of any actor in Samaritan.
Not that Samaritan‘s dialogue is doing Walton any favors either. At one point, Sam takes his suspicions about Samaritan’s true identity to the local nerd, played by the great Martin Starr in his 90 seconds of screen time. “Look, kid, I’m a journalist,” Starr says. “An intellectual.”
“I know!” says Sam. “I love your work!”
What even is this dialogue? Was the screenwriter being chased? Most of the words in the Samaritan script consist of exactly this kind of brutally utilitarian exposition, feeling like it was improvised on the fly, the kinds of things porn actors say to establish the basic facts of the scene before they commence with the fucking.
The big question for the makers of Samaritan is, which part was supposed to be the fucking? Was it Sylvester Stallone as a superhero? Pilou Asbaek (Euron Greyjoy) as the villain with a snake tattooed on his head? The steak is readily apparent in Samaritan but you’ll spend the whole movie searching in vain for the sizzle. Usually when you overtly acknowledge the tropes and standard story beats in a movie like this, it’s for some purpose, some comment about what we like about or what it means to be a comic book movie. Samaritan is really none of that, it’s more like discount comic book movie slurry.
And with an occasional whiff of weird politics. Asbaek’s bad guy, naturally, idolizes Nemesis, who he says “hurt people who deserved to be hurt,” and “always punched up.” When he inspires roving gangs of looters, it’s hard to wonder if Samaritan is meant as some kind of broadside against the woke mobs Fox News convinces its viewers have destroyed liberal cities.
Which, honestly, fine. Stallone has spent most of his entire career making wonderfully enjoyable action flicks out of reactionary politics. Samaritan, for better or worse (worse), isn’t even close to that coherent.