Samaritan it does so many things well that it’s kind of unbelievable what it manages to clock in under 99 minutes. The film clearly loves and respects the superhero genre without putting it on a pedestal. You understand why heroes mean so much to children without being sentimental. But it’s not overly cynical either, despite knowing the appeal and point of view of its villains. It’s also a movie full of superhero tropes, but it uses them in a way that doesn’t seem common. It’s somehow familiar and fresh. (As you will see touches of inspiration from The X-Manalthough the film is not another mutant story.)
And it manages to execute what superhero franchises sometimes can’t in an entire movie. Samaritan delivers a traditional origin story in minutes, with a quick and satisfying mini-tale full of lore, tragedy and a cool weapon. All this allows the film to tell a different kind of story.
The problem is that Samaritan it’s really two different movies put together. The third act has a completely different tone and approach from the first two. An understated Sylvester Stallone is perfect as an aging, jaded superhero weighed down by his past. He conveys so much of the character’s struggles with just his expressions and walk Samaritan it doesn’t need to rely on elaborate monologues or heavy exposition. But when the film builds to its inevitable showdown, it abandons its clever writing, quiet performances and well-paced plot. They give way to hilarious lines and loads of action as the movie gets faster, louder and sillier.
In a vacuum, the ending is pretty fun. Especially if like me, you’ll always love watching Stallone beat up bad guys. It’s not just the end of the rest of the movie set. And it’s definitely not the ending that the rest of the movie deserves.
This dichotomy is why even though I enjoyed the film and appreciated that it does something interesting, I was disappointed by what it could have been. Instead of giving us good halves of two different movies, Samaritan got a chance to give us a great story. He might have, too, if he gave himself credit for all that he was doing well.
Samaritan opens with the story of Granite City’s greatest hero and how he (apparently) died. It is told in a hybrid live-action/animation technique that looks like a living comic book. It’s absolutely fantastic. However, I will not share the details of the hero’s story. It’s not technically a spoiler. (In fact, it’s in the official synopsis, which I recommend you avoid reading.) But if you’re even slightly familiar with the basic tenets of the story, you’ll understand the real question the story of the Samaritan story raises. And this issue, but stated explicitly, frames the film.
This story is seen primarily through the small eyes of 13-year-old Sam Cleary. He’s played with all the necessary gusto that Javon “Wanna” Walton needs, who is fun to root for. Sam and his mother are struggling financially after his father’s death. This causes the young man to get mixed up with a very dangerous crowd. But Sam has hope. He is a Samaritan authenticator who believes the hero is still alive.
He eventually becomes convinced that his oldest neighbor, a junkman named Joe Smith, is actually the legendary figure hiding in plain sight. It’s impossible for Stallone’s Smith to deny that he’s a secret person as his mangled body miraculously mends after a car accident. But he refuses to take up the Samaratian mantle, even as Edwin of Pilou Asbæk unleashes chaos and anarchy on the ruined city. (A place from which it definitely borrows its aesthetic and disenfranchised elements The Knight of Erresire rises AND Joker.)
When we finally get the answer to the movie’s big question, it’s nothing short of a surprise. Data everywhere is at the limit. So much so that it feels intentional. But the lack of surprise would actually have been great if Samaritan had benefited from it. The answer, which you see in hundreds of different ways, makes for a much more complex and interesting story. If only the film had confirmed what was so obvious before, Samaritan could have explored what the past meant to its hero, villain, Sam, the city, and even the superhero genre.
There’s a lot more depth to what’s actually going on and why once the movie stops pretending we don’t know what’s going on. Unfortunately Samaritan ends immediately after that moment. The grand final showdown only scratches the surface of everything we’ve learned. It’s too busy punching people and blowing things up to focus on the really good stuff.
Samaritan it’s good, and maybe (definitely?) better than they’ll expect from another movie where old Sylvester Stallone is the toughest guy in the world. It’s interesting and fun. It’s also very clever in its approach to superheroes, including the logical reasons that its hero is both vulnerable and slow. (Stallone is 76. He can’t move like he used to, and it shows. But the movie knows that, and explains why the character is also slower.) But Samaritan it could have been great if it focused on all the things we didn’t expect from it instead of making sure it included the things we did.
Samaritandirected by Julius Avery (dominant) with a script from Bragi F. Schut (Escape Room), debuts on Prime Video on August 26.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also wherever someone is listing the Targaryen kings.