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Samaritan (Film Review)

5 min read

25 years after the apparent demise of superhero and arch-villain Nemesis in Granite City, young loner Sam () has never given up the hope that Samaritan survived and lives among them. His latest suspect is waste collector Joe Smith () who lives opposite. Having to navigate the streets is difficult enough for Sam by avoiding dangerous criminals and thugs, spearheaded by Nemesis fanatic Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk) who has deadly plans himself for the city. As Sam starts to fall deeper in with the wrong crowd, Joe can't watch from the side-lines much longer and calls upon the flickering ember of heroic vengeance inside him to help Sam and fight back against Cyrus and save Granite City.

At 76 years young, Sylvester Stallone is one of the leading talents of his generation in Hollywood. His projects are more selective, but he's fully invested in his Rocky legacy, the Rambo and The Expendables series and his work in both the MCU and DCEU. It's hard to fault him as an actor and star. Now he's back in a dark take on the superhero genre with Samaritan­. Directed by Australian Julius Avery and based on the 2014 graphic novel by Bragi F. Schut (who writes the screenplay), Stallone is in good company for a film that doesn't try to re-shape the genre but looks at it from a new angle that caters to Stallone's age and ability. Yet this is no colourful CGI fizz from Marvel, and it could sit beside the darker offerings of DC. It's one for the grown-ups, and all the better for it.

Joe Smith has powers akin to Superman – strength, leaping tall buildings, bullet resistant – and the brutal vigilantism of Batman – never afraid to impale or break bones of those wrongdoers out there. He's the perfect mix of two famous heroes, but now living among ordinary citizens. A little slower and introverted after suffering at the hands of what great power can bring you. This is a perfect role for Stallone, and he carries off Joe akin to Rocky Balboa; he's got the ability but doesn't always want to use it unless he really must. He's experienced the highs and lows, and just wants to get on with a quiet life. He works as a garbage collector, tinkers with broken mechanics and wears a comfortable hoodie, jacket and beanie, looking more like a sailor than a superhero. But that's the point – he wants to be left alone.

Stallone is a magnet for great action and great drama, because he's a brilliant actor away from dishing out action. This film could have gotten away with casting any other actor in the lead, true, but for the amount of inner turmoil rage and power sitting underneath Joe Smith simmering away, Stallone just feels right from the off. He's still a gentle man to look at, but imposing when he is pushed. There are a number of great action sequences that don't use anything but practical stunts and tight choreography to allow Stallone to flex as much as he can, with subtle use of body doubles thanks to his face masked by a hood.

He packs one hell of a punch, and it's impossible not to find it thrilling when he unleashes all sorts of heroic butt-kicking towards the final chapter. Yet, it's practical for the most part – no silly CGI flying or laser beam eyes or technical gadgets. For instance, instead of a Batmobile, Joe has a heavy garbage truck. Samaritan and Nemesis are superbeings who use what they were born with as power, and so have no need for glitzy costumes or quips.

There are strong nods to some themes from Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises. It's hard not to imagine Granite City as a new Gotham, and our villainous and slightly hammy Pilou Asbæk channels the masked menace of Bane. Asbæk roars with rebellious power, inspiring frustrated citizens struggling in a broken system to fight back and throw the city into chaos. Where corruption, power and crime rule the streets. Asbæk cuts a decent figure, but closer to Superman IV: The Quest For Peace villainy than anything else when he gets going with his mask and machine gun toting mercenaries around him. As much as this is a good v bad story, it's also a character study and exploration of relationships that help make people better than they thought they could be.

This comes into play thanks to the talented young Javon Walton of The Umbrella Academy and Utopia fame. Walton plays Sam; a young kid bullied and pushed into criminal activities to earn easy money. While this an obvious narrative arc as to where Sam will eventually go, he's a decent and likeable kid more often afraid and lost than anything. Walton plays him with a spark of innocence that is never lost, always seeking out his hero Samaritan and inspiring good in people, even if it means doing the wrong thing just to earn a bit of money. With Walton and Stallone as two lost sheep in a dangerous city, they come together well and make for a sweet pairing to help each other, yet with enough fire in their bellies to rub off against each other and stand strong in the face of adversity.

With support from the likes of Moisés Arias as street thug Reza, as Sam's mother Isabelle and as the villainess Sil, everyone plays a vital part in the story making for characters you can either like or loathe easily.

Some of the themes are very familiar with this take on the anti-superhero film, other works spring to mind such as Kick-Ass or, to some extent, Unbreakable. Yet Samaritan dispenses any costume crime-fighting or gratuitous comedy to keep it real, with some bone crunching violence, enhanced CGI explosions and plenty of hard-knuckle fights that represent the crime culture on the streets. Seeking salvation or purpose is never easy for “retired” superheroes, but when they are as broody and broken as Joe Smith, the road to that redemption is always going to be an interesting one to watch – again, thanks to Stallone and his strong screen presence.

Don't expect a superhero film where Stallone busts out a killer costume to fight crime like Batman or The Phantom. This isn't that type of fantastical heroic story. He's a man with powers and with demons, trying not to give into them while he tries to ignore the decay of society until he can't ignore any longer. That's not to say he doesn't stop his fair share of bullets, throw bad-guys through walls, push over parked cars or twist knifes in his bare hands – oh no, there is plenty of time to watch Stallone do what he does best, and when he does it's nothing but fist-pumping entertainment!