You don’t get to be the world’s busiest actor by being choosy, or by taking the time to reinvent yourself every time you step in front of a camera. It’s difficult to describe The Samaritan, in which Samuel L. Jackson plays an ex-con trying to return to the straight and narrow after 25 years inside, without overlapping a dozen other movies in his nigh-endless filmography, nor watch any scene without thinking of how many times he’s drawn from the same bag of tricks.
“Nothing changes unless you make a change,” according to Jackson’s opening voiceover, leftover words of wisdom from a cellmate who returned to prison only weeks after his long-awaited release. In Jackson’s case, it’s not a lack of will that threatens to pull him back in, but the son (Luke Kirby) of his former partner and fellow con artist. After a grift gone wrong, Jackson was given the choice either to murder his partner or die alongside him; he chose the former, and his quarter-century prison term turns out to be only the beginning of the debts he has to pay. The way Kirby figures it, Jackson owes up his assistance on an “old-school” con, and he’ll secure his cooperation by force if his drugged-up seductress (Ruth Negga) doesn’t get the job done first.
Instead, Jackson and Negga strike up an apparently bona-fide romantic relationship, the first stable situation either has had in years, which ought to give Jackson an opportunity to stray from his well-worn badass persona. But Jackson seems lost when he’s called upon to actually act rather than simply deliver lines in a trailer-worthy fashion, and it’s been a long time since he let his guard down on screen. To be fair, The Samaritan doesn’t merit much of his effort, especially since the juicy bits that Jackson would normally sink his teeth into go instead to villain Tom Wilkinson, who waxes rhapsodic about a bottle of vintage champagne and then kills a man with its jagged neck. But modest productions ought to be an opportunity for an established actor to take risks, and Jackson seems only interested in cashing his paycheck, even if it’s not an especially large one.