Director – Julius Avery, Screenplay – Bragi F. Schut, Producers – Braden Aftergood & Sylvester Stallone, Photography – David Ungaro, Music – Kevin Kiner & Jed Kurzel, Visual Effects Supervisor – Paul Linden, Visual Effects – Crafty Apes, Distillery VFX (Supervisor – Greg Kegel), Ingenuity Studios (Supervisor – David Lebensfeld & Grant Miller), Rising Sun Pictures (Supervisor – Tim Crosbie), Sandbox FX (Supervisor – John P. Nugent) & Universal Production Partners (Supervisor – Viktor Muller), Special Effects Supervisor – J.D. Schwalm, Makeup Effects Supervisor – Gregory Funk, Production Design – Greg Berry & Christopher Glass. Production Company – Balboa Productions.
Sylvester Stallone (Joe Smith), Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton (Sam Cleary), Pilou Asbaek (Cyrus), Dascha Polanco (Tiffany Cleary), Sophia Tatum (Sil), Moises Arias (Reza), Martin Starr (Albert Casler), Jared Odrick (Farshad), Michael Aaron Milligan (Tuna)
In Granite City, twelve year-old Sam Cleary lives in an inner city apartment with his mother. Sam is obsessed with the superhero Samaritan who vanished 25 years ago after a battle with his twin brother Nemesis, who was in the process of trying to blow up the power plant and had created a powerful hammer to destroy Samaritan. Sam has been sure that various people were Samaritan although these suspicions amounted to nothing. He is drawn into the orbit of Cyrus who runs the street gangs in the city and takes a shine to Sam. When some of Cyrus’s associates beat Sam up, his aging neighbour, the garbage collector Joe Smith, comes to Sam’s aid, throwing the attackers around with super-strength. When Sam sees Joe run down by a car and get up unharmed, he realises that Joe is Samaritan. As the two develop a friendship, Cyrus retrieves Nemesis’s hammer during a raid on the police evidence storeroom. With it, he marshals the people of the city to stand up in revolution and cause chaos and anarchy, while intending to fulfil Nemesis’s original plan to blow up the power grid. Against this, Joe is forced to reluctantly make a return to action.
The Superhero Film has taken over the box-office in the 2010s/2020s. There is very little outside of this that does not come from the Big Two – Marvel and DC. Of the tiny five or so percent of entries that fall under the label of Other, an even smaller percentage of these are superhero films that are original to the screen and not adapted from comic-book properties. And of these screen original superheroes, most of these are parodies/deconstructions such as The Incredibles (2004), Defendor (2009), Super (2010) and Brightburn (2019). Samaritan is one of these original screen superheroes and can be considered a deconstruction – even if it never does anything much to break down the tropes of the genre, except perhaps at its end that questions the idea of divides where the superpowered are pushed into being either heroes or Super-Villains.
The concept of the aging, retired superhero being brought back into action feels as though it should be a well-worn trope, although there are not too many screen examples that come to mind. The witty and underrated The Return of Captain Invincible (1983) did amusing thigs with this very concept, while The Incredibles concerns superheroes not so much dealing with aging as enforced retirement. More recently, the third season of The Boys (2019- ) used the concept of the aging superhero brought back to the fray to conduct a devastatingly on the ball evisceration of Captain America.
It seems some surprise that Sylvester Stallone has never played a superhero before. With only a slight twist, his Neanderthal acting and bulked up physicality would have been perfect casting for The Incredible Hulk. The nearest he has come is voicing the CGI-created King Shark in The Suicide Squad (2021), while he appeared in a non-superheroes role in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 (2017). He also played the title role in the comic-book adapted Judge Dredd (1995) and a super-villain of sorts in Spy Kids 3D: Game Over (2003).
However, his taking on the part here and especially at the age he is (Stallone turned 79 just before Samaritan went into release) is a piece of genius casting. Stallone’s career has been built on playing gruff, monosyllabic tough guy roles. There has been almost no variation in these – an occasional flash of humour being about it. His role in Samaritan seems akin to when Clint Eastwood made films like Unforgiven (1992) and Gran Torino (2008) where he cast himself as an old man repudiating and learning the better of the violent, tough guy ways of his youth (ie. the part that Eastwood had made his name with).
The scenes here where Stallone cautions Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton against getting into fights and a later scene where he walks away from a confrontation with a guy in the street and apologises come at almost 180 degrees remove from Stallone’s previously established persona. Indeed, the scenes with Stallone acting as a substitute father figure to Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton are an entirely new side to Stallone we have not seen before and are the warmest in the film.
The film itself is far more of a mixed bag. It is directed by Julius Avery, the Australian director who had previously ventured into genre material with the underwhelming J.J. Abrams-produced Overlord (2018) and the subsequent The Pope’s Exorcist (2023). The script comes from Bragi F. Scut, who previously wrote the scripts for Season of the Witch (2011) and Escape Room (2019).
There is nothing here that I feel has not been done substantially better elsewhere. The hero reluctantly brought back into the game is a well-worn trope. The everyday superhero whose costume is no more than a regular coat with the hood up reminds of Bruce Willis in Unbreakable (2000). There are one or two unexceptional superheroics that mostly involve Stallone throwing people around – and a mildly cool one where he leaps over a car carrying a child and overturns the car to act as a shield to protect from an explosion – but nothing that wows you in your seat. The film’s big twist is one that you can easily predict in advance.
The film takes an admirable stance in being one of the few that tackle the realities of inner city poverty but it often feels that this just means street gangs driving around in customised muscle cars and beating people up. In reality, one fails to see what either Pilou Asbaek’s mad scheme to blow up the power plant and incite social chaos will achieve, nor for that matter Stallone’s fighting a few hoods will do to alleviate anybody’s circumstances. It feels like a backdrop the film sought to adopt to show its social consciousness that in reality ended up being no more than a production designer’s novel way of adding grit to the milieu.