Samaritan Review: This Cheesy Sylvester Stallone B-Movie Is A Hell Of A Ride

Sylvester Stallone's 2022 direct-to-streaming action flick "Samaritan" has a certain irresistible je ne sais quoi. Maybe it's the story's comfortingly familiar formula, or maybe it's the contrast of physical, practical stunts performed in a hyper-stylized world. Maybe — just maybe — the key element is how much fun everyone seems to be having; for a story about an aging superhero set against the backdrop of urban decay, there's a surprising amount of joy and earnest affection in the underlying structure.     

"Samaritan" feels like a lost relic from the early aughts; this is exactly the kind of movie pre-teens used to rent from the corner store and become absolutely obsessed with. It is peak "12-year-old-boy cool" — like "Spy Kids" but with attitude. The film centers on Sam Clearly (Javon Walton), a kid from the wrong side of town who finds himself drawn into the seedy world of notorious gang leader Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk). Sam is being raised by his loving if irresponsible mother Tiffany (Dascha Polanco), and it's obvious that poor Sam is desperate to find a male role model to fill the void left by his father's death. The kid is obsessed with Samaritan, a local superhero who is thought to have died 25 years ago. Sam believes this hero is still alive, and that he's out there, somewhere, waiting to be found. 

Even without knowing anything about this movie, you probably can guess what happens next. Some mean and slightly older kids try to beat up Sam, and they're stopped by a super-strong ... elderly garbage man. This is Joe (Sylvester Stallone), a recluse who happens to live nearby and really digs dumpster-diving in the rain. Initially, Joe tries to brush Sam off, but a sudden accident essentially outs him as having superpowers, and they begin an unlikely friendship.  

Samaritan is fun, if nothing else

I am sure there will be many critics (some professional, some of the "couch" variety) who will turn up their noses to "Samaritan," making snide commentary about the story being basic, derivative, etc. — the kind of self-important, "I am a connoisseur of culture" discourse that plagues this industry. To these people, I say: " why do you hate fun?" 

"Samaritan" is very good at what it's aiming to do: delivering a "dark" superhero story for kids. Specifically, it's a narrative in which the adolescent protagonist bears witness to the fantastic; it's an approach that worked really well for beloved classics like "Bedknobs and Broomsticks," "The Goonies," and "The Monster Squad." The straightforward plot with its satisfying (if predictable) twist at the end is ideal for a pre-teen audience because it's easy to follow, while still feeling distinct from more "family-friendly" fare. The fantasy gang violence sets clear stakes for young minds to comprehend; uncomplicated by moral ambiguity and realism, the delineation of "good guys" and "bad guys" is obvious without resorting to offensive stereotypes or overly disturbing onscreen action. 

"Samaritan" is how a child might imagine the world: Cyrus is an unhinged, over-the-top gang leader — like a modern-day version of Fagin from "Oliver Twist," but with face tats. His crew drives matching cars, they all eat fast-food hamburgers, and his hideout is an abandoned-looking warehouse decked out with broken-down cars and arcade machines. Cyrus and his crew are dangerous, but in a relatively "safe" manner: In the spirit of Batman villains, the gang wears masks, plans elaborate heists, and uses "black-out bombs," which are essentially explosive electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons designed to knock out electricity. It's a bit silly, but fits the movie's overall tone.    

Another Stallone film set against urban decay

"Samaritan" director Julius Avery eschews the recent trend of washed-out, dark visuals and instead opts for a colorful, brightly lit aesthetic. The opening prologue uses a filter that evokes comic-book imagery, which establishes the film's campier tone. Many scenes feature exaggerated, saturated colors — like a rich, royal-blue night sky contrasted by the overwhelming warm glow of streetlights, or a city overtaken by the haze of smoke and flame. It's an excellent compliment to the fast-paced fight choreography and stunt work. Like so many of Stallone's best works, the movie features themes of poverty, redemption, found family, and perseverance, and the color scheme here really helps to create this mood.

For what is essentially a B-movie that — intended or not — feels like it was made for pre-teen boys, there is a surprising amount of depth and nuance in "Samaritan." Sprinkled throughout the scenes are hints of the past, and the resulting effect is that the film often feels like it takes place in a near-future dystopia as imagined by someone in the '90s. Joe's hobby is fixing "broken things" (hint hint — it's because he yearns to fix himself) but he typically tinkers with items like antique radios and analog watches. The mean teenagers hang out at an arcade, and Cyrus even has an old, boxy personal computer with a CRT monitor. Right next to it is a "RoboCop" arcade cabinet — directly referencing another film set in a decaying urban landscape on the brink of societal collapse. Sam's world is not quite as dire as Alex Murphy's, but if Cyrus succeeds, it will be.

Still a B-movie with B-movie problems

Where "Samaritan" really falters is the interpersonal elements. Screenwriter Bragi F. Schut's characterization is weak, and rather than compensate or distract from that, Avery's direction often brings attention to how thin and artificial the dialogue sounds. In one moment, Sam turns on a dime — going from bubbly to despondent and fearful in the same breath. As a parent, I recognize that kids actually do that, but as a viewer, it felt almost comically abrupt. The issue comes down to framing and motivation: The audience can't see the characters' inner thoughts, so we need other clues that establish this information. Avery may be very talented in shooting action sequences, but he struggles in the quieter moments. 

To make matters worse, Sam and Joe have very little chemistry, which is supposed to be driving the story in the second act. Both actors are giving their all with the material provided, but the pacing is so fast, and the writing so wooden, that we don't really get to see the relationship between Sam and Joe grow. As well, some of the special effects go beyond being enjoyably over-the-top and just feel distracting; it's hard to focus on a heartfelt conversation between the two leads when they're surrounded by a bunch of unnecessary CGI environmental effects.

I am unapologetically a lover of B-movie action films. I love diving through the $10 DVD bins at discount stores and finding under-appreciated gems like "Undisputed 3: Redemption" (an excellent Scott Atkins vehicle). It's in this spirit that I really enjoyed "Samaritan" and will definitely watch it again, probably with friends and the aid of alcohol. There are things this film does very well, but it is definitely flawed — and it's not an issue of the limited budget, but rather creative choices that hurt the overall project. Some movies are so bad that they're good; that's not really the case here. Still, those who remember a time when afternoons were spent pumping quarters into Street Fighter II and fantasizing about Sylvester Stallone beating up your bullies, will no doubt feel a surge of nostalgia — and a healthy dose of dopamine — watching "Samaritan."

/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10