Julius Avery’s “Overlord” is one of my all-time favorite movies. From the first frame to the last, it’s filled with gory special effects, gorgeous frames, beautiful actors acting beautifully, and lots of dead (and undead) Nazis. Hence, it’s very enjoyable. The verdict is still out on “Son of a Gun” because it is unfortunately on the fabled watchlist. The film stars Ewan McGregor, Brenton Thwaites, Alicia Vikander, and Damon Herriman. So, there’s little to no chance that it’s “bad.” When the trailer for “Samaritan” dropped, people rushed to compare it to “Archenemy,” “Hancock,” and, of course, “Logan.” Drawing parallels to the latter makes some sense, but it’s not at all like the former two in any shape or form. And having any thematic or character similarities isn’t Avery’s latest film’s biggest issue. The problem is its rushed execution.
Written by Bragi F. Schut, Julius Avery’s “Samaritan” is set in Granite City. It follows Sam (Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton), who lives with his mother, Tiffany (Dascha Polanco). He has a friend named Jace (Abraham Clinkscales). And since his mother’s job as a nurse doesn’t bring home enough money, he scavenges for discarded items and sells them. This brings him in touch with the city’s biggest criminal, Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk), who has plans to be the next Nemesis. What’s that all about? Well, a few decades ago, a pair of twin brothers with superpowers used to live there. They were branded as freaks, and their parents were burned alive. One of them became a symbol of justice, i.e., Samaritan, and the other was consumed by hatred, i.e., Nemesis. They apparently died in a brutal battle. However, Sam believes that Samaritan lives in his neighborhood.
To put it simply, “Samaritan” imagines what things would be like if Superman lived in Gotham instead of Metropolis. He’d initially try to be everywhere all at once in order to stop every kind of crime. But after realizing that his superpowers weren’t enough to make things right, he’d go into hiding. That is essentially the basis on which Avery and Schut build their movie. They show how unemployment, the lack of proper living conditions, hunger, and a crumbling health sector can turn its residents into weapons of mass destruction. All they need is a spark. Which, in this case, is provided by Cyrus as he wants anarchy under the garb of fulfilling Nemesis’s destiny. Joe (Sylvester Stallone), the man assumed to be a Samaritan, constantly repeats the pointlessness of fighting back, thereby unintentionally helping the likes of Cyrus to grow in numbers.
So, there’s a sense of nihilism to it all and this need for a hero to rise to the occasion and do something (even if it’s temporary) to ignite a feeling of hope. But all that remains underneath the surface because “Samaritan” is in a mad rush to get to its twist ending. Nemesis and Samaritan’s symbols keep popping up everywhere. There’s a journalist, Albert Casler (Martin Starr), who has written a novel about Samaritan, but nobody is buying it. There’s an uprising of sorts where Cyrus gives everyone Nemesis masks, and they start looting and plundering. However, these moments are so fleeting and random that they look like the movie’s way of ticking boxes from a list of cliches that you need to make a “relevant” superhero flick. There’s no weight to it. There’s no emotion behind it. So, it’s difficult to be invested in the hero and the villain’s respective journeys.
Credit where credit is due, production designers Greg Berry and Christopher Glass, and the art direction, set design, costume design, stunt, practical effects, and visual effects departments have done a great job of bringing Granite City to life. David Ungaro’s cinematography and Pete Beaudreau and Matt Evans’s editing are competent. And due to Avery’s evident dedication to his job, not a single frame looks out of place. That’s why I am going to go out on a limb and say that this film has been hacked to hit the 100-minute mark. Scenes of the city’s decay, the involvement of the government, the lore of Nemesis and Samaritan, Cyrus’s game plan, the bond between Joe and Sam, and more seem to be missing. Is it on the cutting room floor? Was it not filmed for budgetary reasons? Is there an extended, fleshed-out cut in MGM’s locker? I don’t know for sure. But I have my suspicions.
That leaves us with the performances. As someone who has grown up watching Sylvester Stallone’s films, it’s always a delight to watch the man on the screen. The general consensus is that he has always played characters who are strong men. But the roles that he’s most popular for, i.e., Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, have a sense of vulnerability to them that Stallone has maintained throughout the sequels. He brings that balance between super strength and humanity to his role as Joe. He is 76 years old, and he obviously needs the help of stunt doubles. However, during the final stretch, he does a lot of his stunts himself, thereby making his character feel tangible. Javon Walton had already proven his worth in “Euphoria,” and his turn as Sam is his way of saying he’s a star in the making. Pilou Asbæk delivers a scenery-chewing performance. The rest of the cast is fine because none of them stick out like sore thumbs.
There are no two ways to say this. That’s why I am going to give it to you straight. We live in a post- “Logan” and post- “The Boys” world. Gritty, subversive stories that critique the superhero genre, which is being watered down and commodified by Marvel, have already been perfected. On the other end of the spectrum, the genre has been celebrated by “The Batman” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” So, at this point, before making a superhero film, you’ve got to think about what you’re bringing to the table. It doesn’t have to be anything new because the wheel can be invented only once. But it has to be substantial, personal, and something that can resonate with people. “Samaritan” certainly set out to accomplish these three things. However, something happened in the way, and it ended up being this unengaging film with a surface-level commentary about poverty and superheroism. That said, feel free to give “Samaritan” a watch for Sly Stallone.