A film whose hilarious technical ineptitude and surprising thematic depth intersect in the same scene is a rarity. That’s enough to afford a bit of critical space to Bad Samaritan — whose crumb-sized spot in the public consciousness will be gone in a few days’ time.
Formerly of Misfits and recently of slicing his penis off on Fortitude, gangly heartthrob Robert Sheehan plays Sean Falco. Sean is an Irish photographer flung halfway around the world to Portland, Oregon by his working-class stepdad, Don. Much to Don’s dismay, Sean toils in a rut as a restaurant valet. If only Sean would take that job photographing food in St. Louis that Don could get him. Aye, but Sean doesn’t want to “wear a suit and piss in a cup every day.” He wants to make Art®!
One of few photos we see Sean take is during a pre-coital flirtation with girlfriend Riley (Jacqueline Byers). Bad Samaritan opens on a scene of a horse being flayed and shot by a young boy, so we know Sean’s picture of Riley’s briefly bared breast will be used for evil —Chekhov’s nudie. But in the moment, Riley worries about the composition of the shot itself.
“It’s not about you,” Sean says in his swooning brogue. “It’s about the light behind you.”
One would assume director Dean Devlin picked up basic directorial style simply from hanging around with Roland Emmerich, alongside whom he co-wrote Stargate, Independence Day and 1998’s Godzilla. One would be head-smackingly wrong; it’s now clear that any tolerable moment of Geostorm (Devlin’s directorial debut) came from its well-publicized reshoots.
Here, hilariously, is a moment when a photographer praises backlighting that is blowing out all faces in the frame. It’s the ugliest shot of the year in anything that has escaped into more than 2,000 theaters rather than languishing in a dark corner of Vudu.
Sean really gets money through a PG version of the scam from the Death Wish remake without all the murder. He and his partner, Derek (Carlito Olivero), use saved GPS addresses in the cars they valet to get inside people’s homes and steal little valuables they won’t notice right away.
That rude douche with the Maserati who tells Sean he smells “like a fucking drum circle” and whose name is — get ready for it — Cale Erendreich? He really has it coming. But Sean gets inside Cale’s swanky pad to find a woman (Kerry Condon) beaten, chained and held captive.
This is the stuff of hundreds of tax-shelter thrillers that did not happen to send Isle of Dogs packing from your town before you could get to it. No shock that the remainder finds Sean in a cat-and-mouse game with Cale, hilariously played by David Tennant as a pinched-voice metrosexual mix of Steve Buscemi and Anthony Perkins. He earns whatever he was paid by not cracking up at saying “There will be correction. There will be holy fire. I AM THE MESSIAH!”
Boy, this sure sounds hopeless. But think back to Sean’s line about “the light behind you,” and it reflects an earnestness behind what could have been a lifelessly lurid resurrection of the mid-’90s thriller aesthetic.
Yes, Sean ultimately bails on saving the woman in the moment. But he almost immediately calls the cops from a pay phone. When Cale has a cover story, Sean confesses to a detective that he was trying to rob the place. When said detective falls for Cale’s awesome coffee and clean design lines, Sean goes to the got-damn Federal Bureau, folks. So unswerving is Sean’s course correction that he won’t even FaceTime with Derek while driving!
Sean tells all the right people all the right things and still … he loses. Cale sees this and, in the only moment of subtlety from Tennant in this thing, decides to have more fun toying with Sean than simply killing him. Again, Chekhov’s nudie.
Using real cameras, Devlin delivers a film uglier than Unsane, which Steven Soderbergh shot on an iPhone for crying out loud. Some images hit resolutions lower than a cracked clearance TV set. And yet Brandon Boyce’s script here tackles ideas of morality in law in genre entertainment – and the lines along which infractions against them are bent for the better-off among us — in ways that are obvious but which embarrass Soderbergh’s hand-wave of the same.
“They won’t believe that,” someone mewls at Cale as he chats up his latest plan. “You have no idea how rich I am,” he replies. It’s no accident that the hero is a working-class immigrant. It’s absolutely intentional that the villain is a white, stylish, rich asshole. The class and cultural status of the character whom Cale deems “beyond correction” hits hard before Brandon Boyce’s screenplay, wisely and shrewdly, uses said death to give Sean the leverage to win. Oh, and if you’re wondering about, you know, the lady tied up in Cale’s house, Boyce’s screenplay tweaks the masculine aspirations to heroics by letting her get the lion’s share of the job done.
A lot of Bad Samaritan is stump-dumb nonsense. Hell, even its title doesn’t make sense given what happens. It’s not good, but you will find it interesting when you stumble onto whatever streaming service pretends this is a marquee title in a few months. After all, it’s not always about the image you’re seeing, but the light behind it.