When Sylvester Stallone returned to his iconic role as Philly boxing underdog Rocky Balboa seven years ago in director Ryan Coogler’s rousing and beautifully crafted reboot Creed, scoring a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance, it served as a reminder of some movie stars’ magical ability to stay within a narrow range without sacrificing depth or complexity. Stepping into the position of mentor to Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed, Stallone’s Rocky remained the lovable galoot we all fondly remember while passing on the heartbreaking toll wrought on the Italian stallion by loss and loss. health.
With the actor released from duty at ringside after Creed II and looking to stay relevant in the late ’70s, it was perhaps inevitable that Stallone would venture beyond its niche and enter the commercially flourishing realm of superhero film. One of the many weird things about Stallone’s new movie Samaritan, however, is that it is not adapted from a comic book; writer Bragi F. Schut (escape room) first wrote the story as a screenplay and then created a graphic novel out of it. The film opens with a lively and eerily rushed prologue through the story of how the masked hero Samaritan, blessed with nearly invincible superhuman strength, was a savior for the citizens of Granite City until he was and his supervillain twin brother Nemesis both perish in a fiery battle royale 25 years ago.
Cut to the present day, where 13-year-old pint-sized but scrappy Sam (Jovan “Wanna” Walton) is so addicted to Samaritan mythology that he scribbles the superhero in his notebook during school . Sam lives in the inauthentically fake and gritty downtown of Granite City with his financially troubled nurse mother (Dascha Polanco) and finds himself recklessly drawn to the money-making opportunities presented by Cyrus (Pilou Asbaek), a boss of power-mad gang that worships Nemesis as a fallen idol. When a few Territorial Cyrus lackeys corner Sam with knives, Joe Smith (Stallone), Sam’s reclusive, reclusive garbage neighbor, comes to the child’s rescue, throwing the attackers out and bending their knife blades without breaking a sweat.
Unfortunately, this first display of Joe’s extraordinary fighting abilities is one of only two extremely brief Stallone-centric action scenes offered in the first two-thirds of the film. Instead, as Sam becomes convinced that Joe is actually a now-retired hero, Samaritan comes across as more of an intergenerational buddy movie. It’s not like there’s no precedent for the whole “superhero as an aging curmudgeon befriending a protected child”in the realm of comic book film – James Mangold’s Wolverine solo film Logan successfully turned it into a tough, character-driven genre entry. But Schut’s script takes a soft, sitcom-like approach to the growing bond between Sam and Joe, full of rampant cliches, undeserved sentimentality, and lame jokes.
Walton, though occasionally strenuous in his efforts, is a generally likable presence, while Stallone coasts on self-amused autopilot. As can be the case with projects he also produces, there are concessions to Stallone’s ego (after Sam injures his fist by punching Joe’s stomach in a sparring match, Joe’s retort is, “What were you thinking? You know I’m built like a tank!”), as well as bizarre actorly touches (Joe habitually scarfing down ice cream is at least explained as a way to cool down his body’s unique overheating tendency, but why he’s seen pouring apple juice into a bowl of Cheerios at one point instead of milk is anyone’s guess).
But Samaritan finally comes roaring to life in its final half hour, with a simultaneously bonkers and fairly clever plot twist, as well as a spectacular, extended climactic brawl in a multi-story warehouse that works overtime to compensate for the preceding hour and change’s meager lack of action. Director Julius Avery’s previous film, the WWII-set, J.J. Abrams-produced horror movie Overlord, while superior and more consistently gripping, also didn’t fully embrace its B-movie wildness until the final half hour. He stages Joe’s dazzlingly choreographed attack on Cyrus’ gang with a verve that one wishes was more evident earlier, and Stallone becomes more energized in this final stretch too, snarling with badass conviction and tossing off the kind of one-liners commonly found in his ’80s and ’90s action vehicles (“Have a blast!” he quips after tossing a grenade at one baddie).
It’s both ironic and fitting that while Samaritan positions itself as fresh territory for the actor, it’s only entertaining once it belatedly refashions itself as a throwback to vintage Stallone fare.