Released: 26th August
Seen: 28th August
For a while now we’ve been living in the era of the Superhero. From the moment that Iron Man built a mech suit in a cave with a box of scraps, one of the dominating elements of pop culture has been the superhero story. Everyone has had a go at trying to make their own version of it in order to ride the trend, some have tried to deconstruct it (like Netflix’s Project Power or the horror film Brightburn) but everyone has at least tried to have a go at the concept of a superhero saving the day.
It’s also become a thing for certain actors who have always had a cartoonishly muscular body to take on some of these roles, like John Cena becoming Peacemaker or The Rock becoming Black Adam, some people were clearly just born to put on a superhero outfit at some point. One of the biggest of these is Sylvester Stallone, a man who is just so obviously designed to play superhero characters that he’s done it multiple times. First was his role as Judge Dredd back in the 90s and then his turn as King Shark in The Suicide Squad. Now he returns to the genre for a turn as Samaritan, which will probably end up being considered somewhere between his two previous comic book roles.
Samaritan takes place in a rundown town known as Granite City, a place that’s barely holding on and feels like it’s constantly on the verge of turning into a riot. In this town about 20 years ago there was a hero named Samaritan who had a twin brother, the evil Nemesis. They fought brutally until one day Nemesis and Samaritan fought at a power plant that exploded, seemingly killing them both. Cut to the modern day when 13-year-old Sam Cleary (Javon Walton) is trying to help his mom out with the finances since her job can barely keep up with the rent. To do this Sam takes up working for the local gang, led by Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk) and ends up getting in a bit of trouble with other members of the gang who decide to beat up the literal child… until Joe Smith (Sylvester Stallone) turns up and dispenses a little bit of justice.
Sam, who is a Samaritan superfan, deduces that Joe is actually the assumed-dead superhero and soon they become friendly, with Joe trying to teach Sam how to fight… but meanwhile Cyrus has plans to become the new Nemesis by finding Nemesis’ weapon and using it to try to begin a revolution that might improve the lives of those in Granite City, or it might destroy the town. Inevitably though, in order for the new Nemesis to rise, the old Samaritan must be destroyed.
On a conceptual level, there’s a lot to enjoy here, largely regarding how Samaritan plays with the idea of good and evil and how it’s all a matter of perspective. To some, Samaritan is the hero because he was constantly fighting to stop evildoers and defending his community, to others Nemesis was a hero because he took on places like the banks and punched up to try and level the playing field. There’s something kind of fascinating there, a chance to show some ambiguity and maybe look into why we consider some people heroic and some people villains. It’s a setup that offers a real moral grey area to play about in but, beyond one big reveal in the third act, it’s really not used that much. The good guys in Samaritan are the obvious good guys, the villains are the obvious villains and there’s really no way to argue either way.
Then there’s the central performance by Stallone who is so comically large that, even in his mid-70s, he can absolutely sell the action sequences with ease. You buy that this man is a superhero who can kick the crap out of anyone he comes across. He’s a powerful man who sells the role but he’s also kind of sleepwalking through Samaritan. It’s a very standard tired Stallone performance where he barely emotes and just goes through the motions, only seeming to perk up in the action scenes where he admittedly improves considerably. The problem is that those moments are few and far between, for the bulk of the film it’s just watching Stallone looking like he’d rather be anywhere else.
The thing that does make this work is the stuff involving the gang, particularly its leader Cyrus who just commands attention in every scene and lifts the energy up enough to really turn into a threat. He makes sure you know that he’s something to take seriously and might actually kill the main kid, which is what you want in a villain. He kind of blows through Samaritan and leaves wild destruction in his wake… but it’s also hard to really understand why. He steals the mask that allows him to take on the Nemesis mantle just because it would be fun to do, he blows places up but lacks a reason to do so. He doesn’t even claim that it’s because he wants to spread chaos, he just does bad things for no real reason or at least, not a good reason that matters to the narrative.
What all this lack of purpose ends up doing is making Samaritan into a kind of bland film where, ever so occasionally, something will blow up and we’ll get a decent action scene. The setting is absolutely brilliant for an interesting story, it’s such a pity we don’t really get one. It has decent ideas, characters that could be brilliant and potential that it just kind of squanders. It has enough there that it could’ve shot for the moon and done something great but it feels like it’s just running on fumes, barely even trying because it doesn’t need to. Samaritan knows Superhero films are popular, therefore it thinks it’ll get by just by being a visually grittier version of what’s popular but it lacks anything worth latching onto. It’s not awful, it just kind of exists relying on a few good moments to carry it through.