Throughout his lengthy career, superstar Sylvester Stallone has played a number of larger than life characters. As part of this he has even found himself appearing in the odd comic book adaptation, with the likes of Judge Dredd (1995), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 (2017) and even voice work in the more recent The Suicide Squad (2021) all featuring amongst his filmography. However what he hasn’t played is a fully fledged superhero. Until now.
Julius Avery’s Samaritan finds the action legend playing Joe Smith, an elderly garbage collector in the run-down Granite City. Years before Granite City was the home of the superhero Samaritan and his villainous brother Nemesis. After the murder of their parents, Samaritan and Nemesis dealt with it in different ways. While Samaritan decided to become a hero and help the people of Granite City, Nemesis sought to destroy it to make the city pay for what befell his parents.
Ultimately Samaritan and Nemesis were on a collision course, with the two facing off in what was perceived as a fight to the death after the power plant they were fighting in exploded, apparently killing them both. Still, some don’t believe that Samaritan perished in the fire and hope that he will one day return to save the people of Granite City.
One such person is young Sam Cleary (Javon Walton) who comes to believe that Joe is the long lost superhero after he saves him from some gang members. It quickly turns out that Sam’s suspicions may be correct after he displays some unnatural abilities after an attempt is made on his life. With his secret exposed, Joe and Sam start to build up a relationship, with Joe even giving Sam some fighting lessons.
As Sam and Joe’s friendship develops, Sam also falls in with gang leader Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk) who wants the youngster to work for him after being impressed by how he dealt with a situation earlier. At first Sam seems keen but later sees how violent and unhinged Cyrus really is, which puts Sam and those closest to him in danger. In order to save Sam it looks like the reluctant Joe may just have to become the hero Samaritan once again.
Unlike the superhero sagas that make up the MCU, Samaritan is a much smaller scale affair, and honestly this is what saves Samaritan and sets it apart from many other comic book adaptations. Director Julius Avery gives the opening moments of the film a vibrant comic book look, with the famous fight between Samaritan and Nemesis shown in an over-saturated half animated style. It reminded me somewhat of the works of famed animator Ralph Bakshi, with the use of rotoscoped action.
As colorful as this sequence is, the remainder of the film settles on a more drab and grey color palette, which is perfect for the story being told. Samaritan isn’t as visually impressive as Avery’s previous feature Overlord (2018), but he and director of photography David Ungaro gives proceedings a gritty realistic vibe, akin to Ungaro’s work on A Prayer Before Dawn (2017) and Donnybrook (2018).
Clearly Avery is a fan of the classic Robocop (1987), with Granite City sharing many similarities with the Detroit of Paul Verhoeven’s iconic sci-fi classic. With its crime infested streets, with little in the way of law and order it’s clear that Granite City is in decline.
Younger viewers brought up on the likes of Spider-man (2002) or Iron Man (2008) may find Samaritan less accessible than those films, with it having a distinct 90’s feel to it. With this, I mean that it doesn’t exactly follow the tried and tested formula of more recent superhero films. As much as I enjoy the MCU, one must admit that many of their films are extremely similar.
That isn’t to say Samaritan is a game charger. It still follows a predictable path, with many of the film’s twists and turns being obvious, but Avery manages to maintain a fair balance between drama and action. Whilst Samaritan was originally developed by Bragi F. Schut as a screenplay, he would later develop it into a comic book when a film version didn’t seem forthcoming. I can’t comment on how faithful the film is to the comics, but while some of the dialogue sparkles, it can’t cover the predictability of the plot.
Regarding the drama, it helps that Avery has assembled a quality cast that is able to overcome some of the film’s script issues. As a fan of Stallone, he is perfect as the world weary Joe, seemingly disgusted by the world around him and carrying years of regret on his shoulders. It’s a tailor made role for Stallone, allowing him to give the performance some real pathos and heart but still give audiences the action they expect from him.
You have to give credit to Stallone. Who would have thought when watching the likes of First Blood (1982) that he would still be turning out action films 40 years later at 76. His age doesn’t factor much into the film. Sure, you have characters constantly calling him old man, and although his performance has him acting more like the grizzled old Clint Eastwood type, when it comes to the action he is carrying off moves off someone half his age.
Stallone may be the star of Samaritan, but the majority of the focus is on young Javon “Wanna” Walton, with the story being told through him. I hadn’t seen any of Walton’s work before this, but I had heard good things about his performances in the show Euphoria (2019). He certainly impresses here, with him at first filling his character with sheer enthusiasm at the idea of a superhero living across the street. The relationship he builds with Stallone’s Joe is the real heart of the film, and the non action scenes between the two are actually some of the film’s best.
On the villain front we have Pilou Asbæk’s Cyrus. Asbæk is probably best known as the evil Euron Greyjoy in the television series Game of Thrones (2011). He also previously appeared in Julius Avery’s Overlord, playing the film’s main antagonist. Cyrus initially feels like he will have more depth than your typical action movie villain.
One of Samaritan’s main themes is that evil exists in everyone, and no one is completely good or bad, with it being up to the individual to make the correct choice when the time comes. To Cyrus, Nemesis was the real hero of Granite City, with him believing that he fought for the lower classes of the city. Cyrus sees himself as the heir apparent to Nemesis, with him believing what he’s doing is for the betterment of the city. It’s an interesting approach that sadly falls by the wayside as the film progresses, with Cyrus developing into just another one note villain.
I was excited to see how the action was presented as I had recently heard Day Shift (2022) director J.J Perry speak of how he had directed the second unit on the film. After watching Day Shift I was interested to see if the action here would have that same energy. In certain respects it does, but Samaritan takes more time to get to the action, building on the characters first.
This may disappoint some people looking for an all out actioner, as the majority of the film’s action scenes comes in the final third, with only a few brief fights earlier to show what Joe is capable of. Still, the action is excitingly staged when it finally arrives and is certainly worth the wait if only to see Stallone taking out the bad guys.
Although the action scenes have Stallone using super human powers, it is more grounded than something like Man of Steel (2013). There’s no city wide destruction here, with the action being mostly hand to hand fights with Stallone throwing his opponents through the air with ease.
One drawback to the action is that it is relatively bloodless due to the film’s adherence to a PG-13 rating. Avery does manage to push the envelope as possible, but those expecting a blood filled actioner like Stallone’s Rambo (2008) will be left wanting more. The other drawback is some woeful CGI. One particular scene that involves a de-aged Stallone actually had me groaning, as it is one of the worst attempts at this I have seen. There are mobile phone apps that could have done it better and it amazes me that this got passed in a relatively large production.
Samaritan may not be the slam bang actioner that Stallone fans were expecting, and although not a full blown success, there’s still much to enjoy here, chief amongst them Stallone’s lead performance. It is certainly a better star vehicle for him than the enjoyable but unnecessary Rambo: Last Blood (2019).
2022 is quite the year for Stallone. Not only does he have Samaritan but there’s the upcoming Expendables 4 (2022) and the television show Tulsa King (2022) which marks Stallone’s scripted television debut. Even now it looks like Stallone has no plans for slowing down.
Plot: 3/5 Acting: 4/5 Action: 3.5/5 Overall: 3.5/5