A long time ago in the fictional world of Samaritan’s Granite City there were two super-powered twin brothers. They had the strength of gods and the ability the withstand damage beyond what any mortal could bear. Like any set of fictional twins, one was good and one was evil. Samaritan used his powers to help, while Nemesis used them to hurt. Naturally they had to come to blows, and since they were evenly matched, Nemesis forged a weapon from his own distilled rage to give himself the edge. It blew up in his face (literally) when they finally came to blows, destroying both men forever.
…or so it was widely believed. In the years since their epic throwdown, the residents of Granite City relegated the twins to a collective mythology, with a few conspiracy theorists and precocious children holding on to the notion that Samaritan is still out there somewhere living a quiet life, hiding his abilities from a world nearly destroyed by them.
Enter Sam (Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton), a boy with a big imagination and very little going for him. His mother (Dascha Polanco) is doing her best to keep her small family afloat amidst a violent urban landscape, and despite her best efforts, Sam is constantly tempted to go down the wrong path. When his underprivileged indiscretions land him in the path of some violent criminals, his quiet neighbor Joe (Sylvester Stallone) steps in to protect him from a severe beating. The thing is, Joe seems to be invincible, or at the very least, inhumanly strong — Samaritan level strength. Has Sam found the long dormant hero?
What follows is a intersection of three stories, each which could be a movie on their own. We have Sam’s struggle with the criminals who want to bring him down to their level, Joe reconciling whether or not Samaritan should make a return to crimefighting, and a criminal ringleader, Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk), looking to unearth Nemesis’ legendary weapon in an effort to draw the hero out of retirement, with a hope to inspire a population on the fringe to take up arms in Nemesis’ name.
Each story is given equal weight, all efficiently tied together by Bragi F. Schut’s remarkably wholesome script. Yes, Samaritan feels geared toward a younger crowd, especially with a 13-year-old as the audience surrogate. This is why some of the messaging is a bit mixed overall, especially considering that Granite City feels a lot like the New York City we saw in late 80s/early 90s fare (complete with colorful gang members with names like Cyrus, Sil, and Reza). Is it pro-vigilante? Anti-vigilante? Is it making an attempt to comment upon socio-economic privilege? Yes and no, but whatever it’s doing, it’s doing with an eye toward youth. Basically, every moral concern can be boiled down to “be nice, respect your mother, even the worst people in the world are motivated by need rather than animosity.” I can dig that.
The centerpiece here, at least in an marquee sense, is Sylvester Stallone. Now 76 and well beyond a host of plastic surgery procedures, he looks to be barely human. Yet even though his face doesn’t really move anymore, the world’s most eloquent meathead has an undeniable charm that he employs here effortlessly. I’ve often said that when Stallone isn’t trying to be a superstar, he’s actually an incredible actor. While that holds mostly true here, it’s not as pronounced as it would be in comparing Cop Land to, say, Rambo III. In fact, I found myself enjoying the film’s final act the most, at which point it becomes a pretty wicked action flick. Stallone transcends his age and delivers a round of propulsive fisticuffs (helped, of course, by liberally applied effects and fantastic stunt performers).
He does deliver one line that left me concerned, however. Joe enters a freight elevator filled with goons trying to escape his fists. He cheekily asks going my way? before the door shuts and we hear the audio of the ensuing beatdown.
Really? Shouldn’t it have been going down?
Going my way? is a hitchhiking term. Going down? is an elevator term, and it doubles as a threat! Come onnnnnnn.
It’s not the only instance of wonky dialogue, which frequently has an arrhythmic cadence or nonsensical call-and-response wording. An example:
~ What’s so good about it?
Uhhh what? They need to say good morning for that to play! What gives?!?
People gotta get rid of their own problems or their own problems will get rid of them, see?
Not quite sure that’s the cleanest way to say it, but it feels lifted directly out of a Rocky movie, so it’s still charming as hell to hear Stallone dispensing bumper sticker-worthy life advice to a kid.
Director Julius Avery (whose Overlord is a horror classic awaiting a wider discovery) keeps things clean and easy to follow, relying more often on sets and locations than digital backgrounds (as far as I could tell!), delivering a crisp, colorful world that doesn’t mask the bleakness felt by its denizens. A fair amount of CGI flames can get annoying, but even they aren’t as egregious as some I’ve seen. It’s a personal bugaboo, really.
In summation, Samaritan is a charming, if a little cheap, riff on our current spate of superhero cinema that successfully does more in a character sense than so many tentpole Marvel releases have even attempted these past few years. Sure, it feels as if it were ripped straight from the 90s, but that’s not such a bad thing now that the 90s were a quarter-century ago.
Directed by Julius Avery
Written by Bragi F. Schut
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton, Dascha Polanco, and not Frank Stallone
Rated PG-13, runtime 102 minutes