It can't be learned, bought, or fabricated, but some performers just have charisma. And at close to 50 years as a star, it's undeniable that Sylvester Stallone, hardly a "good actor" in the classic sense (and, let's face it, rarely in "good movies" these days), is a 76-year-old slab of charismatic cinematic concrete. To watch him, even in a lousy flick, is to eventually admit, "Yeah, OK, this guy rules."
His newest film, Samaritan, streamable on Prime Video, is an atrocity of a screenplay. It's a Xerox of a Xerox: cheapo superhero dross like we saw during the first wave after Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Remember The Losers? Remember Jonah Hex? Remember The Spirit or Kick-Ass 2? Don't feel too bad if you are drawing blanks; just know that Samaritan fits right in with these misfires in concept and execution. Except for one key factor: Sly.
Samaritan is set in "Granite City," a typically unimaginative urban landscape of grimy apartment blocks and bad guys who hang out in abandoned warehouses. Years ago, for reasons never explained, two brothers were born with "powers" (super strength, a healing factor, jumping really far, grimacing). Assuming the identities of Samaritan (good) and Nemesis (bad) they eventually duked it out in a burning building, and both died.
Or did they? Local legend has it that Samaritan survived, and some — like a bug-eyed bookstore owner played by Martin Starr, and a fatherless 13-year-old rascal named Sam (Javon Walton) — are convinced he's out there.
For Sam, who lives with his just-getting-by mother (Dascha Polanco), he has reason to suspect that the salami head Joe across the courtyard might be Samaritan in hiding. He is strong, he has a burn scar and, uh, well, those are his reasons. Fair enough.
Sam could use some saving, though, as he's just starting to get mixed up with some local street toughs, led by Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk, a Greyjoy from Game of Thrones) and Sil (Sophia Tatum, giving Olivia Wilde in Tron: Legacy vibes). Turns out Cyrus is obsessed with the legend of Nemesis, so he and his crew break into a police station and steal the dead hero's old magical hammer and mask, which is still there all these years later for some reason. The totemic power drawn from these generic props inspires the camera to shoot from low angles as he bellows WWE-ready lines about his enemies kneeling before him. He actually lowers his voice, like Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet in Spaceballs. It's incredible.
Clearly Sly and Asbæk are headed for a showdown, but before this can happen Sam needs to learn about facing his fears and whatnot. "Ay, life isn't fair, kid, but ya gotta keep fighting," Sly says (if I may paraphrase) during a rooftop rendezvous/boxing lesson. It's garbage dialogue with uninspired direction, but Sly's "I'm-not-going-to-work-too-hard-at-this" style of acting makes it and all the other male bonding moments electric. I'm being 100 percent serious here. There's a divorced-dad-trying-to-do-his-best quality to Sly working his way through the ham-fisted dialogue about believing in yourself. It's beyond corny, but after the awkward talk, we'll go to the amusement park and have fun, OK?
And the fun eventually does come. The final 25 minutes or so of this movie involve Sylvester Stallone grunting, braying, and spitting out one-liners as he tears apart dozens of baddies with his bare hands. The fight choreography is absurd — bodies orbit away doing loop-de-loops from just one of Sly's mighty punches. He rams head first through walls, bashes concrete, is impervious to bullets or flames or anything else. "Have a blast," he says as he shoves a grenade-type bomb into someone's stomach. (That one is not a paraphrase.) It's particularly amusing because so much of Samaritan might be considered a kid's film, until the end when it explodes into a raging kill-fest.
So is this good? I don't know. What is good, really? I can say that after I saw the movie I was chuckling as I described scenes to my wife. But she didn't seem too upset that she missed it, for what it's worth. It's weird that producers keep trying to make "new" superhero properties happen. Without the heft of decades of lore, it's really hard to buy in to new cities and new characters, especially when they are this vaguely drawn. But if you have a love for Stallone — and his longevity in the business suggests that many people do — it's surprising how watchable this nonsense is. I guess this Samaritan is, by that definition, good.
Premieres: Friday, Aug. 26 on Prime Video
Who's in it: Sylvester Stallone, Javon Walton, Pilou Asbæk, Dascha Polanco, Martin Starr, Moises Arias
Who's behind it: Julius Avery (director), Bragi F. Schut (screenwriter)
For fans of: Watching Sylvester Stallone do his thing