When Sylvester Stallone returned to his iconic role of Philly boxing underdog Rocky Balboa seven years ago in director Ryan Coogler’s rousing, beautifully crafted reboot Creed, scoring a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance, it served as a reminder of certain 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 conveying the heartbreaking toll exerted on the Italian Stallion by loss and fading health.
With the actor free from ringside duty following Creed II and looking to stay relevant in his late 70s, it’s perhaps inevitable that Stallone would venture beyond his niche, and leap into the commercially thriving realm of the superhero movie. One of the many strange things about Stallone’s new movie Samaritan, though, is that it’s not adapted from a comic book; writer Bragi F. Schut (Escape Room) penned the story as a screenplay first, and then created a graphic novel from it. The film opens with an animated, and strangely rushed, prologue zipping through the backstory of how masked hero Samaritan, blessed with near-invincible superhuman strength, was a savior to the citizens of Granite City until he and his supervillain twin brother Nemesis both perished in a fiery battle royale 25 years ago.
Cut to the present day, where pint-sized but scrappy 13-year-old Sam (Jovan “Wanna” Walton) is so hooked on Samaritan mythology that he doodles the superhero in his notebook during school. Sam lives in the inauthentically faux-gritty inner city of Granite City with his financially struggling nurse mother (Dascha Polanco) and finds himself unwisely drawn to money-making opportunities presented by Cyrus (Pilou Asbaek), a power-mad gang leader who worships Nemesis as a fallen idol. When a few of Cyrus’ territorial lackeys corner Sam with knives out, Sam’s hulking, reclusive, hoodie-clad garbageman neighbor Joe Smith (Stallone) unexpectedly comes to the kid’s rescue, tossing assailants around and bending their knife blades without breaking a sweat.
Disappointingly, this first demonstration of Joe’s extraordinary fighting abilities is one of only two extremely brief Stallone-centered action scenes offered up in the first two-thirds of the film. Instead, as Sam becomes convinced that Joe is actually a now-retired hero, Samaritan emerges as more of an intergenerational buddy movie. It’s not as if there’s no precedent for the “superhero as aging curmudgeon befriending a kid protégé” setup within the comic-book movie realm—James Mangold’s Wolverine solo film Logan successfully spun it into a hard-edged, 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, unearned sentimentality, and lame wisecracks.
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.