Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Luke Kirby
Rating: Two and a-half stars
"Nothing changes unless you make it change," the fresh-out-of-jail Foley tells us in the opening frames of The Samaritan. Unfortunately, it's advice that Canadian writer/director David Weaver probably should have paid closer attention to, as his new film mixes elements of the classic con movie with a dark revenge subplot, but after borrowing a few too many cliches from each genre and not offering much in change, the whole caper starts to fall apart.
Foley (Samuel L. Jackson) is a former grifter (a scam artist, in layman's terms), imprisoned for 25 years after murdering his old partner. Now that he's out of jail he wants nothing more than to hold down a construction job, drink his whisky and wear a brimmed hat/leather jacket combo that makes him look like a tough ex-con.
But it wouldn't be much of a movie if Foley were allowed to live in peace, which is why we're introduced to Ethan (Luke Kirby), a sociopathic gangster-type who not only pulled his first grift when he was 17, but happens to be the son of Foley's late partner. Ethan wants payback for his father's death, which comes in the form of an $8-million scam on a mark who happens to be another sociopathic gangster type.
Xavier (Tom Wilkinson) is a serial killer/wine connoisseur who really likes his bottles of '59 -- both for drinking and as a tool for killing -- and seems like the exact opposite type of person you'd want to try to scam. Add in Iris (Ruth Negga), the troubled prostitute with a heart of gold that falls for Foley, and you have the setting for a series of plot twists and double crosses, the next one just slightly more intangible than the last. To give credit where it's due, one thing these far-fetched twists accomplish is that you never know who's the one getting grifted, although it's quite possible it's the audience all along.
Shot in Toronto, The Samaritan uses the city as one of its own noir characters, providing plenty of dark alleys and panning nighttime shots of lit-up skyscrapers to lend an ominous air to the entire film. It's also nice to see that Toronto doesn't stand in for some anonymous U.S. downtown (Canadian cities can be just as shady-looking!), with occasional shots of the CN Tower, TTC streetcars, the Lakeview diner and a few Canadian flags for good measure.
As an unpredictable villain, Ethan has all the ticks and nuances down, even if he does overdo it sometimes. It's odd that he always seems to be popping up at just the right times, but Kirby plays it crazy enough that you wouldn't hesitate to add serial stalker to his resume of dubious activities.
As Foley, Jackson shifts back and forth from cool and collected to angry and badass the way only he can. For a change, we also get to see him flex his romantic acting muscle when he plays house with the young Iris, which is creepy for far too many reasons to list here. While that section tends to drag on for too long, it does establish the emotional connection between Foley and Iris that becomes important later on. And of course, just when it starts to feel like you can't watch the couple pour their sad-sack hearts out to each other any longer (sample dialogue: Iris: "I tried to kill myself, does that upset you?" Foley: "I'm a murderer, does that upset you?") Ethan comes out of nowhere to remind them all they're in a con/revenge movie, and they still have a few more cliches to run through before the ending that you never saw coming.
The most important aspect to a successful grift is "not about taking someone's money, it's about gaining their confidence," Foley explains after he's inevitably sucked back in to a life of crime. As The Samaritan fails to gain the latter, it might be wise to hold on to the former.