Sylvester Stallone has spent much of the past decade saying goodbye to his signature characters, passing the torch from Rocky Balboa to the next generation in Creed and having John Rambo literally ride off into the sunset in Rambo: Last Blood. At the same time, he doesn’t seem entirely satisfied with that potential finality: He brought Rocky back for Creed II, and had Rambo vowing to keep fighting in Last Blood. Amazon Video’s aging-superhero movie Samaritan feels a bit like an “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” gambit, made to continue the trend. Stallone is running out of classic mostly human characters whose stories he can wrap up, but now he has a new one: a weathered, Stallone-y version of a late-stage superhero in what seems like the final act of his career.
It’s a bigger, more tailored role than Stallone’s recent smaller parts in 2021’s The Suicide Squad and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 for superhero-team specialist James Gunn. It’s probably unfair to wonder what Gunn might have done with Samaritan, but it’s hard not to wonder, because the movie is such a dispiriting mishmash of good ideas, theft from better movies, and clumsy filmmaking.
The premise has an appealing directness, laid out in an illustrated prologue: Granite City was once the home of two brothers with superhuman strength and endurance, dubbed Samaritan and (sigh) Nemesis. Samaritan saved people around the city, while his brother apparently chose “Nemesis” as his nom de supervillain. Their conflict came to a violent end, though Samaritan left behind a legacy of devoted, hopeful fans like young Sam (Javon Walton). Sam has noticed that “Joe Smith” (Stallone), a loner who lives in the apartment building across the way, seems suspiciously strong and resilient for an older man. When Joe fights off some local bullies, Sam starts to wonder: Could this be the superhero he’s been looking for?
At least Samaritan cribs from outside the Marvel/DC playbook. (It was derived from an original screenplay that was converted into an obscure comic book on its way to the screen.) The quiet, indestructible guy played by a Planet Hollywood backer wearing a workaday hoodie brings to mind Unbreakable and its working-class take on superhero mythos. Granite City owes more to the industrial decay of comics movies like The Crow — though it’s equally indebted to local-news scaremongering that depicts any and all cities as cesspools of crime, on the brink of total anarchy. (Accordingly, its baddies bear the true marks of the beast: tattoos, ostentatious hair, and exposed forearms.)
The few moments in Samaritan that do recall more recent superhero movies are still a bit offbeat: Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk), the younger maniac who wants to claim the mantle of Nemesis for himself, sports both a philosophy and a coat that recall the Dark Knight Rises version of Bane. It’s clear early on, however, that these bits and pieces aren’t coming together. Director Julius Avery assembles them with some truly baffling editing choices, leaving multiple scenes without any breathing room.
Samaritan’s transitions are especially jarring, assembled with muddy writing. The movie’s superpower is the ability to inspire a litany of distracting questions in almost any scene, no matter how simple. Try to follow along with this example: For reasons not fully explained, Cyrus is willing to employ the tweenage Sam in his criminal enterprise, and Sam is willing to give it a try, in spite of his devotion to Samaritan’s do-gooder legend. In one scene, Cyrus quickly trains Sam as a lookout. Sam is supposed to whistle if he sees a cop approaching their hideout, even though Sam has just demonstrated that he cannot whistle, Cyrus has just paid off a patrolling officer, and Granite City does not appear to be crawling with devoted lawmen.
Avery then cuts to a distant overhead shot, cueing the audience to expect a transition to a new location, or some action that necessitates a wider view. Then he cuts to the interior of the hideout, as more bad guys arrive — followed by Sam, who sneaks in after them and secretly watches with inexplicable horror as they do bad stuff. On top of the narrative confusion, the tenuous, distant spatial relationship between Sam’s original post and the interior of the hideout makes it seem nearly impossible for anyone to hear him whistling a warning, even if he could.
Is Sam genuinely conflicted between taking up a life of crime and doing the right thing, mirroring the way Granite City’s citizens are divided between Samaritan and Nemesis? Did he accept this job to spy on the bad guys and find out more about their plan to destroy a power grid? The movie is full of questions like this, all basic to the story, and all unanswered. The script is too busy hastily introducing characters — like a fringe writer/bookseller played by a droll Martin Starr — and then forgetting they exist.
Stallone is supposed to serve as the movie-star anchor here, and watching him apply his late-period-Rocky weariness to a gruff superhuman provides the movie’s only sustained interest. The filmmakers do seem to understand that the basic formula of “reluctant hero Stallone plus scrappy fanboy kid” is a durable one. (“Joe” even gives Sam some fighting lessons, in case the movie wasn’t already enough like a Rocky series extension.) They also have one good plot turn up their sleeves. But the movie is so poorly staged that it manages to conceal the supposedly important hero/kid bonding elements, while telegraphing early on where the rest of the story is going.
Worse, Samaritan drains the fun out of a premise that might be irresistible to fans of its stubborn, compelling star, or to fans of Unbreakable’s look and tone. In this movie, the charm of Stallone’s lunkhead philosophizing curdles into a stern, vague lecture about making good choices. (It’s like a libertarian spin on Spider-Man’s central lesson: “Great power comes strictly and exclusively with personal responsibility.”)
Stallone should be adept at playing a superpowered man in quiet semi-retirement. That’s basically the premise of those later Rocky and Rambo installments. But alongside the incompetent filmmaking here, he’s done in by the conviction that it’s not yet time for him to pack it in, or even move on to the character-actor roles that he could really crush. Instead of an elegy for his former invincibility, Samaritan is an utterly fake and cartoony attempt at a new beginning.
Samaritan begins streaming on Amazon on Aug. 26.