Samaritan does so many things well that it’s kind of unbelievable what it accomplishes in under 99 minutes. The movie clearly loves and respects the superhero genre without putting it on a pedestal. It understands why heroes mean so much to kids without being sentimental. But it’s not overly cynical, either, despite recognizing 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 feel trite. It’s somehow both familiar and fresh. (Like how you’ll see touches of inspiration from X-Men, even though the movie isn’t another mutant story.)
And it manages to execute what superhero franchises sometimes can’t in an entire movie. Samaritan provides a traditional origin backstory in a matter of minutes, with a quick and satisfying mini-tale full of lore, tragedy, and a cool weapon. All of which allows the film to tell a different kind of story.
The trouble is that Samaritan is really two different films pieced together. The third act has an entirely different tone and approach from the first two. An understated Sylvester Stallone is perfect as an old, exhausted superhero weighed down by his past. He conveys so much of the character’s struggles with just his expressions and gait that Samaritan doesn’t need to rely on overwrought monologues or heavy-handed exposition. But when the film builds to its inevitable showcase showdown, it abandons its smart writing, quiet performances, and well-paced plot. They give way to quippy lines and loads of action, as the film gets faster, louder, and silly.
In a vacuum the ending is pretty entertaining. Especially, if like me, you’ll always love watching Stallone beat up bad guys. It’s just not the ending the rest of the movie set up. And it’s definitely not the ending the rest of the movie deserved.
That dichotomy is why even though I enjoyed the film and appreciated that it does something interesting, I was disappointed by what could have been. Instead of giving us good halves of two different films, Samaritan had a chance to give us one great story. It might have, too, if it gave itself credit for everything it was doing well.
Samaritan opens with the story of Granite City’s greatest hero and how he (seemingly) died. It’s told with a hybrid live-action/animation technique that looks like a living comic book. It’s absolutely fantastic. I won’t share the details of the hero’s backstory, though. 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 vaguely familiar with basic storytelling principles you’ll recognize the real question Samaritan’s backstory raises. And that issue, all but explicitly stated, frames the film.
That storu is primarily seen through undersized 13-year-old Sam Cleary’s eyes. He’s played with all the necessary enthusiasm needed by Javon “Wanna” Walton, who’s fun to root for. Sam and his mom are struggling financially after the death of his father. That leads the youngster to get mixed up with a very dangerous crowd. But Sam has hope. He is a Samaritan truther who believes the hero is still alive.
He ultimately becomes convinced his older neighbor, a garbage man name Joe Smith, is actually the legendary figure hiding in plain sight. It becomes impossible for Stallone’s Smith to deny he’s a secret supe after his shattered body miraculously fixes itself after a car crash. But he refuses to pick up the Samaratin mantle even as as Pilou Asbæk’s Edwin unleashes chaos and anarchy on the broken city. (A place which definitely borrows its aesthetic and disenfranchised elements from The Dark Knight Rises and Joker.)
When we finally get the answer to the film’s big question it’s anything but a surprise. The clues throughout are bordering on blatant. So much so that it feels intentional. But the lack of surprise would have actually been great if Samaritan had taken advantage of it. The answer, which you see coming a hundred different ways, makes for a far more complex and interesting story. Had the film confirmed what’s so obvious earlier, Samaritan could have explored what the past meant for its hero, villain, Sam, the city, and even the superhero genre.
There’s so much more depth to what is really happening and why once the film stops pretending we don’t know what’s going on. Unfortunately Samaritan ends soon after that moment. The big 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 is good, and probably (definitely?) better than most will expect from another film where old Sylvester Stallone is the toughest guy in the world. It’s interesting and entertaining. It’s also really smart in its approach to superheroes, including the logical reasons its hero is both vulnerable and slow. (Stallone is 76. He can’t move like he once could and it shows. But the film knows this and explains why the character is slower, too.) But Samaritan could have been great if it focused on all of the things we didn’t expect from it instead of making sure it included the things we did.
Samaritan, directed by Julius Avery (Overlord) with a screenplay by Bragi F. Schut (Escape Room), debuts on Prime Video August 26.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.