Image Credit to Variety
Bad Samaritan is a classic case of a good film being trapped inside of a bad one. This story of kidnapping, vengeance, and survival plays mostly as a straight thriller. In this mode, uninspired direction and sloppy screenwriting combine to create a repetitive and meandering work. However, for a few instances, the film comes to life as it hints at an absurd, campy layer underneath, which mines humor by poking fun at the movie’s premise, characters, and subjects. When Bad Samaritan embraces this wise-ass attitude, it ends up being a promising bargain, which makes the fact that it mostly runs away from such comedy so frustrating.
The movie follows an unemployed and college-age Sean Falco (Robert Sheehan), who makes his living robbing people. He and his buddy, Derek (Carlito Olivero) run a scheme where they pretend to valet park for a local restaurant, steal the cars of clientele, use the cars’ GPS to head to the patrons’ homes, and then take items from these houses.
Bad Samaritan’s willingness to laugh at itself can be found in an early scene in which Derek breaks in to a young family’s residence. The family’s dog chases Derek, forcing him to flee the premises before completing the robbery. As this attack unfolds inside the kitchen, director Dean Devlin cuts to an exterior shot in which the action cannot be seen, but Derek’s voice and screams can be heard. By using such a shot, one typical of pivotal suspense sequences, in a relatively lighthearted moment, Devlin coaxes a well-earned laugh. It’s as though Bad Samaritan is admitting that a) Sean and Derek’s plan has many blind spots and b) the two could be embroiled in a realistic, low-stakes conflict instead of the exaggerated and insanely high-stakes conflict the film will place them in.
That high-stakes conflict begins when, soon after Derek’s failed job, a rich asshole named Cale Erendeich (David Tennant) shows up. Sean takes his luxurious Maserati to a lavish house, in which he finds an inactivated card worth thousands. What he also finds is a chained-up, bruised, and disheveled woman named Katie (Kerry Condon). Sean tries to free her, but gets thwarted. The rest of the movie involves him trying to rescue Katie, while Cale catches on to him and decides to stop him by making his life hell.
As Bad Samaritan’s plot gets going, it mostly suppresses the early playfulness, instead setting its sights on being a lean and mean thriller. There’s nothing wrong with that, but neither Devlin nor screenwriter Brandon Boyce have enough craftsmanship to pull this off. Of the two, Devlin fares better. He’s very nimble at using POV-shots to increase audiences’ worry and fear for a character who is entering a dangerous space or situation. He’s also surprisingly skillful at framing shots in which characters are confronted or attacked by figures behind them or to the side of them, timing such predictable reveals just right so they actually scare viewers.
However, despite these positive attributes, Devlin’s direction leaves a lot to be desired. He employs his suspense techniques even when they don’t serve the narrative, solely so he can “juice” theatergoers on fright. Not only does this mean that Bad Samaritan contains ineffective intentionally scary moments, but it means that the well-executed suspenseful sequences feel cheapened, repetitive. In one scene, for example, he uses spy POV-shots to suggest a creepy observer’s presence even though the narrative makes it clear that no such presence exists. Similarly, the film suffers from a muted and dark color palette that accompanies every scene, even warm and fun ones. The use of this color palette, the industry standard now, also points to another issue with Devlin’s filmmaking: it lacks imagination. His craft can be competent, but it never rises above that. He supplies almost no breathtaking shots or camera moves; his picture contains little that makes viewers feel like they’re watching a unique or passionate artist. Instead, Devlin’s direction means that Bad Samaritan often looks, moves, and feels like any standard Hollywood thriller; thus, even when the film is unsettling, that emotion seems artificial.
For all of Devlin’s faults, Boyce’s screenplay is what dooms Bad Samaritan. The premise Boyce works with, that an immoral/criminal figure indulges a bad habit only to uncover a far worse crime, dangerously forcing him to stop it, is fruitful. It’s one found in some of cinema’s masterpieces, such as Rear Window. Sadly, Boyce doesn’t know how to mine drama out of it. The key is that each scene must contribute to the premise’s inherent tension; the audience should feel like their stress levels are rising until they can’t take it anymore. Boyce fails at this. Instead, he tries delivering a suspenseful event, halts the narrative to clarify context or stage an emotional moment between Sean and his family/friends, then restarts the process of creating something frightening. The result is a push-pull effect, a feeling like the film is constantly going backwards, and then forwards, to reach the same position.
It doesn’t help matters that Boyce is working with too many characters. There are two law-enforcement members who Sean visits in consecutive sequences to help him capture Cale. Similarly, Sean has a best friend, parents, and a girlfriend who he disappoints at different intervals, before attempting to reconcile. Having these figures play similar roles during distinct events means that Bad Samaritan’s diversions from tense scenes feel even more annoying and alienating. For a thriller, this movie simply has too many boring moments.
If Bad Samaritan was merely a work of mixed direction and poor screenwriting, it would be easy to forget. However, the opening’s comedy consistently shades what viewers witness or returns unexpectedly. There’s always a chance, ultimately unfulfilled, that the picture will break out of its tension-fueled mode and embrace being a farce. This possibility transforms a cliché scene in which a background figure surprises Sean, only to be revealed as a friend instead of a nemesis, into a funny moment. This humorous streak allows the movie to contain dialogue during its ending that mocks how certain moral agents appear exactly on-time in the context of a drama, but very late in the context of real-life without feeling like such ribbing is out of place.
Most importantly, this comic tone clarifies or provides an alternate vision of what Devlin and Boyce were going for with the antagonistic Cale. Cale is depicted as a combination of opposite extremes. He’s both a controlling, detail-oriented dangerous force who knows precisely what buttons to push to destroy people’s lives, and someone who deep down is child-like, a man worried about nature’s chaos, who tries to order it by lording power over everyone. Cale’s two sides, the badass and the kid, are just too conflicting to ever come together. The harder the movie tries to force these two halves into one, the more ridiculous and less frightening Cale becomes. However, because Bad Samaritan carves out a place for ludicrousness, this silliness can exist. It can be seen as a fun send-up of how all modern thrillers now need their “Psycho psychiatrist” element that tries to make sense out of a character’s sadism even though such explanations are often unsatisfying and illogical.
Unfortunately, while Devlin and Boyce’s work can contain such laughs, these delights are a side dish to the main, botched course: suspense. The director and screenwriter dream to create an upsetting and disturbing moral thriller, and for this reason, downplay the movie’s humor, choosing to let it seep through the cracks occasionally. The result is a film containing uncreative, though not necessarily incompetent, direction and awful screenwriting with just a hint of possibly transforming into an ambitious thriller-comedy. That promise of highlighting absurdity isn’t enough to make Bad Samaritan good, but it’s enough to imagine a better picture in its place or at least a more consistently entertaining one. And that fantasy of what could’ve been makes what is far more disappointing.