The superhero space has proven more pliable than expected after “Iron Man” changed Hollywood forever 14 years ago.
We’ve seen both super comedies (“Thor” 3 and 4) as well as supervillain romps, and plenty of shades in between. We’ve even heard of a film so woke it got canceled in the creative crib.
Sylvester Stallone’s “Samaritan” seems the next step in the genre’s evolution. The screen icon plays a retired hero drawn back into the superhero game following a crime wave.
(Did they shoot the film last week? Actually, “Samaritan” has been awaiting release for nearly years)
What “Samaritan” can’t do is follow-up on its outsized potential. We’re left wondering what might have been, not picturing yet another franchise for the “Rambo” and “Rocky” star.
Stallone plays Joe Smith, a sanitation worker who loves tinkering with discarded items he finds on the job. A local lad named Sam (Javon Walton) suspects Joe is much more than he appears.
The boy is obsessed with the urban legend surrounding the Samaritan, a mythical hero who allegedly years ago fighting his corrupt brother. Sam suspects Joe may be the reclusive superhero, but the hulking senior does all he can to convince the boy he’s mistaken.
The comic potential here never blossoms.
Meanwhile, crime is running rampant in Granite City, the film’s fictional ‘hood, and a blonde thug hopes to profit from the chaos. That’s Pilou Asbaek as Cyrus, the film’s larger-than-life villain.
Think Bane lite. Very lite.
Asbaek is in over-the-top mode, much like one of the thugs from “RoboCop” (that ’80s classic gets a quick shout out for keen-eyed observers).
We all know what will happen next, and the film’s setup suggests a meatier story than your average super romp.
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Stallone doesn’t get much screen time at first, letting us get to know Sam and his hardscrabble life. His mother (Dascha Polanco) is doing the best she can, but her son’s lack of a male role model is beyond her control.
It’s a void filled, in part, by Joe, one of many themes teased but not fully engaged. And why does the lad gravitate toward Cyrus in the early going? Some moral texture here would enrich young Sam’s character, and the film itself.
Is part of Sam inspired by a crook who beats a system that put his mom in poverty?
All that early promise fades as the story deepens. The curious bond between Sam and Cyrus gets nudged aside, so do the morally dense themes suggesting “Samaritan” deserves franchise status.
Stallone’s performance veers from pedestrian to powerful, as if he wasn’t fully engaged with the material. It’s hard to blame him.
Who is Joe, really? There’s a twist in play, but screenwriter Bragi F. Schut can’t sell its emotional underpinnings. Neither can Stallone.
The film doesn’t adhere to its own super-logic, making that third act more exasperating than fun. Stallone’s hero has a curious weakness, but it emerges when it suits the film’s plot demands.
The story never leans into the vigilante potential given Granite City’s soaring crime rates. What if Samaritan returned a la Paul Kersey to take out the trash left behind by overworked cops?
Nor does “Samaritan” engage other culture war debates encircling the plot. Those seeking a cathartic, “Dirty Harry”-like thriller will be disappointed.
To its credit, “Samaritan” doesn’t take itself too seriously, wallowing in the B-movie gutter for extended stretches.
“Samaritan” boasts a commendable running time (less than two hours!) and a screen legend willing to lean into his advanced years. We even get a line that could have been uttered in half a dozen ’80s action films.
Beyond that, “Samaritan” can’t save the day.
HiT or Miss: “Samaritan” starts strong, building a credible bond between a hero and his pre-teen fan, but the film abandons its potential with a generic, shoot ’em up finale.