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Bad Samaritan

Back in 2000, a Portland-based band called The Dandy Warhols came out with their music video for “Bohemian Like You“. To this date, it is still the most authentic depiction of my city that I’ve ever seen in pop culture. None of the condescending hyperbole of “Portlandia” or the gory urban fantasy dickery of “Grimm”. No, if you want to see the Portland I know and love and live in, what it sounds like and looks like and feels like, the music video for “Bohemian Like You” is still the best we’ve got. Even though the video is twenty years old and most of it was shot in a bar that no longer exists.

So here’s Bad Samaritan, a major motion picture set and shot in Sweet Home Stumptown, starring David Tennant. The film was produced and directed by Dean Devlin, who previously exec-produced “Leverage” and “The Librarians” in the City of Roses. This is also the same Dean Devlin who made Geostorm — one of the biggest box office bombs of 2017 — as his directorial debut.

Then I found out that this movie’s a crime thriller, and I knew pretty much immediately that this wouldn’t be the love letter to Portland that I keep wishing for. My city has had a terrible record with crime thrillers — we still haven’t completely lived down Body of Evidence, a movie that could only be considered passable by the dismal standards of Madonna’s filmography. And I’m probably one of a dozen people who remember that Gone even happened — I still carry the deep emotional scars from how bad that was.

(Side note: I’m not counting I, Tonya because that biopic about Portland’s most notorious celebrity was shot in Atlanta. Get the fuck outta here.)

With all of that said, I was greatly saddened — but by no means shocked or disappointed — to see that we had another Gone-level stinker with this one.

(Full disclosure: I did recognize one or two personal acquaintances among the bit parts. One of them got an especially prominent cameo role as a police officer.)

The basic premise of Bad Samaritan concerns a young thief (Sean, played by Robert Sheehan) who unknowingly breaks into the house of a homicidal psychopath (Cale, played by David Tennant). It’s certainly not a bad premise, even if it’s been done to death — Don’t Breathe had the same basic kernel of an idea. And comparing the two films is an excellent way to show how Don’t Breathe was a fantastic horror thriller while Bad Samaritan utterly fails.

Obviously, Don’t Breathe had the gimmick of a killer who was totally blind, though his other senses — and his capacity for mortal injury — were borderline superhuman. And this gimmick was expressed through innovative techniques in camerawork, editing, sound design, etc. By comparison, Samaritan has no gimmick to speak of. More importantly, there’s not a single shred of creativity to be found anywhere in the presentation. It would be gracious to say that the shots and edits are on par with a TV movie, and the overwrought score only draws attention to how little tension is there on the screen. Seriously, any ten minutes in an episode of “Grimm” would have more atmosphere and terror than this entire 110-minute movie, and that’s a pretty big fucking problem in what’s ostensibly a suspense thriller.

Speaking of runtime, remember how Don’t Breathe was a brisk 88 minutes? That movie knew how to pick up the pace and keep the audience on their toes. Compare that to this movie, which is padded to the gills even at 110 minutes. There are so many scenes that drag on, with other scenes and storylines that could’ve been cut entirely.

Then there’s the matter of the rating. Don’t Breathe fucking earned its R rating, putting its characters through multiple layers of hell, physically and psychologically torturing each other in deeply traumatic ways. While Bad Samaritan may also be rated R, it definitely feels like they started with a PG-13 script and then put in just enough swearing to bump the rating, with a two-second topless shot for good measure. Why is this important? Well, that brings me to the last and most important comparison.

Don’t Breathe was very clearly a war of Bad vs. Evil. The filmmakers were smart enough to never, ever forget that even if the Blind Man was a bona fide monster, our protagonists were still burglars who broke into his house. Even if they fought and scraped to earn their survival, these teenagers would still have to live under constant threat of their sins coming back to haunt them, and the knowledge that they were asking for trouble the moment they broke into that house. Bad Samaritan fails in huge part because it shows no such awareness.

Our protagonist earns negative sympathy points right off the bat, as Sean is introduced as an aspiring photographer who doesn’t want to be tied down with a day job. No joke, his stepfather (Don, played by Rob Nagle) has a relative with a perfectly legitimate job all lined up for him, but Sean decides that he’d rather break into people’s houses and steal shit to make ends meet. And this is supposed to be our hero.

Yes, Sean does take responsibility for his actions, turning himself into the police and letting his loved ones know that all the awful shit happening around him is entirely his fault. And yes, it can’t be ignored that Sean is out to save some young woman he doesn’t even know. But that is still nowhere near enough to forgive Sean for his sins. The film consistently treats Sean as a scrappy underdog fighting for justice, but I refuse to buy that when he brought this on himself for no reason other than to be a self-righteous douchebag.

On the other end, we have David Tennant, who is at once the best and worst thing about this movie. At this stage in his career, Tennant has the “stone-cold psychopath” persona down cold, and he uses that skill set to present the only interesting performance in this movie. It’s still not a good performance, and he still has to coat the scenery in various herbs and spices before it’s fit to be chewed up, but that’s the level of effort it takes to make anything even remotely passable out of this material.

For comparison’s sake, consider Tennant’s recent portrayals of Hamlet, or of Kilgrave in “Jessica Jones”. In both cases, we knew exactly what made these characters tick and what motivated them to act as they do. In the specific case of Kilgrave, that understanding made for a far more compelling villain, such a textbook example of toxic masculinity writ large that we knew exactly why he had to be stopped. But with Cale, his methods and motivations are so flimsy they may as well not be there.

Cale is a Gary Stu villain. He’s impossibly good at everything; with the knowledge, gadgets, and skills to instantly solve any possible scenario; capable of instantly appearing wherever he needs to be; and there’s never any decent explanation as to how and why he does any of this. No matter what Sean or the cops do, he’s always one step ahead. No matter how blatantly obvious the trap is, the good guys will always walk right into it.

Obviously, any story depends on conflict, and there wouldn’t be any conflict if the protagonist had it easy. But a one-sided conflict is just as bad if it’s imbalanced on the other side. The villain is so infallibly OP and the good guys are so insufferably stupid that it got boring and frankly insulting to see Cale run circles around the other characters for 90 minutes. What’s worse, the balance of power is so thoroughly broken that it can only be fixed by some of the most transparently lazy writing I’ve seen in a very long time. And of course, when the characters on all sides are so two-dimensional that they don’t even merit the sympathy due to a paper doll, why the fuck should anyone care how any of this pans out?

There are other characters in here, but none worthy of much note. Kerry Condon (coincidentally, the voice of Friday in Avengers: Infinity War, which you should definitely be watching instead) plays the young woman held captive by our villain. I realize that she spends most of this movie tied up, and she does get an admittedly glorious moment of independent action at the climax. Even so, she’s little more than a Sexy Lamp. The character is so thinly defined that she barely deserves to be called as such.

Another prominent supporting character is Derek (Carlito Olivero), Sean’s best friend and partner in crime. He’s an idiot. He’s greedy, he’s reckless, and he exists for the sole purpose of getting Sean into trouble. Fuck this character.

From start to finish, top to bottom, inside and out, Bad Samaritan is pathetically bad. The acting ranges from hammy to bland, the writing is lazy, the characters are useless, the score is annoying, and the visuals are pedestrian at best. It’s too stupid to be tense, too predictable to be memorable, too lazy to be intriguing, and too serious to be any fun. It doesn’t have the ambition to be a massive failure, the creativity to be an interesting failure, or the insight to have any degree of thematic depth. It’s just an empty nothing of a film that deserves to be swept off the history books by the record-breaking gross of Avengers: Infinity War.

As with Gone, I expect that I’ll be one of the rare few to even remember that this movie exists. I accept that as my cross to bear. Everybody else would be better off forgetting all about this film, if they haven’t already.

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