Review: Stallone’s ‘Samaritan’ exceeds all expectations as ‘Unbreakable’ meets ‘Shane’

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews Sylvester Stallone's 'Samaritan'

In 2000, M. Night Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable” starred a plainclothes Bruce Willis gradually figuring out that he was indeed a superhero across Samuel L. Jackson’s brittle Mr. Glass.

Starting Friday, Sylvester Stallone similarly plays a plainclothes garbage man whom a little kid believes to be a former superhero in the new flick “Samaritan,” which exceeds all expectations for what a superhero movie can and should be on Amazon Prime Video.

The film follows Sam Cleary (Javon Walton), a boy who lives with his single mom, Tiffany (Dascha Polanco), while running with a rough-and-tumble crowd. Soon, he begins to suspect that a local garbage man named Joe (Sylvester Stallone) might be a legendary superhero who was thought to have gone missing after an epic battle 25 years ago.

Like Hugh Jackman in “Logan” (2017), Stallone is perfectly cast as an aging idol after Rocky and Rambo, giving the shoplifting kid pointers like when Rocky told a young girl: “You hang out with nice people, you get nice friends. You hang out with smart people, you get smart friends. You hang out with yo-yo’s, you get yo-yo friends. Simple mathematics.”

This time, the impressionable kid doesn’t reply, “Screw you, Creepo!” The boy actively wants to know more. Their relationship recalls George Stevens’ Western “Shane” (1953) as the starry-eyed Brandon De Wilde calls out to Alan Ladd’s aging gunslinger, “Shane, look out!” Here, the boy similarly calls out to Stallone, “Come on, Joe! Fight back, please!”

Joe’s reluctance to adopt the title of Samaritan is the core of the script, cleverly written by Bragi F. Schut (” Escape Room”). If Joe admitted his identity early on, the movie would have suffered. Instead, we get the mystery of Sam swiping Joe’s scrapbook and visiting a bearded guru with a wall of articles with strings tied to thumbtacks connecting the clues.

As his mom says, “The decisions you make add up.” Same with filmmaking. Director Julius Avery (“Overlord”) slowly doles out information from an opening graphic sequence showing the back story of Samaritan vs. Nemesis (a la Romulus and Remus), two super twins who supposedly died in an explosion, giving Stallone PTSD nightmares about the fiery battle.

The audience is like the kid, wondering whether superheroes actually existed, but as we watch Stallone fling bullies and snap his own broken bones back into place, his powers become clear. When the boy asks, “Are you OK?” Stallone replies, “F**k no!” with a nice comedic tone that requires Joe to take cold showers and eat ice cream to stay cool.

The bond between the boy and the titan grows deeper when Sam tells Joe that Samaritan actually saved his father once, not by lifting a car off of him or flying him across crumbling skyscrapers, but by simply having an inspirational talk with him after catching him stealing cars. Rather than busting him for grand theft auto, Samaritan talked some sense into him.

This mythic battle of good vs. evil hangs over the entire city. Sam hopes to use it for good, while gang leader Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk, Euron Greyjoy in “Game of Thrones”) wants to revive it for evil, saying,“ I can finish what Nemesis started.” He even breaks into boxes of police evidence to find Nemesis’ mask and glowing sledgehammer (Thor, meet Triple H).

We’re told: “That hammer was forged with hatred that Nemesis had for his brother. It was the only thing that could leave a scar on either twin.” Heaven help the city if it falls into the wrong hands as Cyrus claims it doesn’t matter who you hurt as long as you “punch up.”

It all builds to a final showdown as Cyrus battles Joe, glancing over at Sam to say, “I want him to see his hero fall,” before sadistically taunting Joe, “Come on, Good Guy!” The next line is a real zinger, crafting an excellent Act Three that will leave you pleasantly surprised.

You’ll nod during the falling action as Joe wisely tells the kid, “If it were only bad people doing bad things, it would be easy to get rid of them. But the real truth is: good and bad live in everybody’s heart. It’s up to you to make the right choice — and I know you will.”

I’ll admit that going into this weekend, I figured I’d enjoy Hulu’s Mike Tyson miniseries “Mike” and slog through Amazon’s superhero flick “Samaritan,” but it wound up being the total opposite. As they say in sports, it doesn’t matter how it looks on paper; that’s why you play the game! Thanks for getting back in the ring, Sly — you just knocked out Tyson.

3.5 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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