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Once upon a time, two superpowered brothers lived in rainy, poverty-stricken Granite City. Samaritan, the good one, fought for peace and justice. Nemesis, the bad one, was full of hatred — for the normal humans who’d called them freaks, and for his brother. One night, the brothers fought each other, and there was a big kaboom, and everyone thought they were both dead. But a little boy named Sam (Javon Walton) thinks Samaritan might still be alive, in the form of Joe Smith (Sylvester Stallone), a recluse who just so happens to live in the building next door.

Samaritan is a simple-minded superhero flick that offers no solution or reason for the grinding poverty it shows us. Someone on the news is literally cut off before she explains why unemployment and evictions are high. It’s just something that happens in the big city, where a lot of those, y’know, urban types dwell. To cover its ass, Samaritan gives us a blonde, Viking-looking gang leader, Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk), who stokes working-class resentment (for his own ends, of course) and wants to follow in Nemesis’ footsteps. Still, a lot of those, y’know, urban types work for Cyrus — including little Sam, at first. But Joe stands tall and points the way that others should go — to redemption or to Hell, their choice.

Stallone keeps his end of the bargain. He’s playing the ancient trope of the still-powerful old-timer drawn back into the fray against his better judgment, but he plays it simply and well. Joe just wants to be left alone in his apartment to tinker with things he finds on his trash-collecting route. Stallone makes us feel Joe’s weariness alongside his growing impulse to do for the city what he does for watches and toasters. One’s focus shifts immediately and gratefully to him whenever he’s around, and he even sells a flashback moment with him de-aged to look like, say, Nighthawks-era Sly. He’s the reason most people will bother with this and stick with it (though the other actors, particularly Dascha Polanco as Sam’s harried mom, aren’t bad).

It’s the nihilistically grungy backdrop, like Hobo with a Shotgun or RoboCop without the satire, that sticks in the craw. Granite City is full of misery, and full of mobs of people easily swayed to chant Nemesis’ name and then Samaritan’s. Such soil is fertile for the seeds of fascism, as is the soil of a lot of superhero power fantasies. I wouldn’t be — don’t want to be — going here if Samaritan were any fun, but largely it isn’t. The action is PG-13 brutal but dumb; half the shots we see bad guys take from Joe look like they’d be fatal. After too many macho things like this, in comics or in movies, I can see why old issues of Wonder Woman are so gratifying to me. My favorite version of Wonder Woman (there are many) is so powerful she can afford to be kind, even to her enemies. I’ve read stories where she says of that month’s baddie, “I know what in this person’s life turned them towards mistakes. I’m going to see that they get help.” 

But that sort of thing probably lies beyond a movie produced by as well as starring Sylvester Stallone, whose presence sometimes makes Samaritan seem like Cobra for teenagers (actually, Cobra was always for teenagers). There are honest, hard-working moms harassed by their landlords, and there are low scum who kill without a thought; there’s no middle ground, even though Joe’s whole arc rests on the possibility of redemption and the war, as Joe says, between good and bad in the same heart. I guess that depth of understanding only applies to white male heroes and the little boys who idolize them. There’s a female character who runs with Cyrus’ gang, having been “rescued” by him from living in a car at age eight. Joe kills her with a bomb. Apparently her crisis wasn’t as valid as Sam’s or Joe’s.

Explore posts in the same categories: action/adventure, one of the year's worst

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