Just when I thought I’d seen every possible variation on a superhero movie, Sylvester Stallone and director Julius Avery came up with a new one, the geriatric superhero. In the latest Prime Video original, “Samaritan,” Stallone, looking every bit of his 75 years, plays an aging garbageman named Joe Smith. But Joe isn’t an ordinary Joe. Instead, he’s got some strange powers that prove to a 13-year-old hero-worshipping boy he’s Granite City’s long-missing superhero, Samaritan. It’s an intriguing premise for a film, but the finished product sometimes feels as age-worn as its hero.
In a pre-credits prologue, young Sam (Javon Walton) explains that Samaritan and his brother both had superpowers since birth. But while Samaritan became the city’s champion, his brother became Nemesis, an equally powerful villain obsessed with destroying Samaritan. Nemesis arranged a trap for Samaritan, leading to a final combat between the two on top of a burning building. Neither has been seen since, but Sam worships Samaritan and has become obsessed with finding the missing hero, who the boy is convinced is still alive. When Joe rescues Sam from a beating at the hands of some neighborhood goons (and tosses some of them around), Sam becomes convinced he’s found his hero. And later, Joe seems to prove the point with other exhibitions of superstrength and invulnerability.
Besides the central concept of an elderly superhero, “Samaritan” is a mix of many familiar movie tropes. The most obvious and effective is that of the aging mentor and the hero-worshipping boy (Hint: “The Karate Kid”). Sam lives in a rundown apartment with his single mother, who is always just one paycheck away from being evicted. Joe likes the boy, takes him under his wing, and begins imparting the typical sort of valuable life lessons found in movies like this. It’s very familiar cinematic territory, but Stallone and young Walton have a good, easy-going camaraderie.
But just as Samaritan had his rival, Nemesis, Joe eventually finds himself pitted against a modern-day Nemesis, local gang leader Cyrus (Pilou Asbek). Cyrus worships Nemesis and dreams of bringing Nemesis’ master plot to fruition, causing destruction and chaos all over the city. To help carry out this plan, Cyrus steals Nemesis’ mask and giant hammer, the weapon the original supervillain tried to use against Samaritan. Cyrus sets his own death trap for Joe, a warehouse packed with dozens of his heavily armed accomplices. If all this sounds familiar, it should. Cyrus sounds and acts like Tom Hardy’s Bane, and the warehouse finale borrows from a similar sequence in “Robocop.” The most interesting things about Cyrus and his cohorts are the colorful assortment of tattoos they sport.
What will probably draw most people to “Samaritan” is the anticipation of seeing Sylvester Stallone wreak superpowered havoc on various thugs and goons. Unfortunately, they are likely to be disappointed. Joe beats the stuffings out of ever larger numbers of underlings, but each “fight” usually consists of Joe landing one punch, followed by the hapless crook flying through the air and thudding into the nearest solid object. Joe is also invulnerable, so knives and guns have little effect on him. These scenes are interesting at first but grow repetitive and somewhat lackluster. The movie’s PG-13 rating also makes the bloodless fight scenes more tepid. This film cries out for some R-rated dismemberments but instead resembles an amped-up version of the old “Batman” TV show fisticuffs.
“Samaritan” was clearly made on a relatively minimal budget with little money being spent on the sort of CGI effects viewers come to expect in superhero movies. The final showdown between Joe and Cyrus is a bit longer and more interesting. But it lacks the sort of spectacle viewers come to expect in superhero/supervillain battles like this. Further, Nemesis’ hammer, the highly hyped superweapon that’s supposedly the only thing capable of killing Samaritan, proves to be little more than a very bulky prop the characters lug around.
For all its shortcomings, “Samaritan” features the best performance by Sylvester Stallone in years. He resembles the original Rocky, who has somehow gone to sleep in a cryogenic chamber and awakened 50 years later. He’s well matched by Javon Walton, who also has effective scenes with the film’s other actors, including Pilou Asbek. I enjoyed the byplay among the characters and the film’s central premise enough to give it a three-star rating and a mild recommendation. Those who expect “Avengers” levels of superhero feats may be disappointed, but “Samaritan” is better than much of what’s currently playing on the big screen.