An example of what might be called Toronto noir, “The Samaritan” proceeds down a routine path as a crime drama, despite the best efforts of Samuel L. Jackson as an ex-con doing his damnedest to go straight. If anything, this Canadian production misses a great opportunity to dig into its setting and examine the dark side of seemingly pristine Toronto, even as the script by Elan Mastai and director David Weaver labors over a mostly boilerplate storyline. IFC’s May rollout will do killer biz in VOD but only modest numbers in theatrical.
Longtime grifter Foley (Jackson) exits prison after a 25-year stint for murder to find that much has changed in the outside world, as an ex-partner, Gretchen (Martha Burns), tells him all their cohorts are dead or nearly so. Parole officer Deacon (vet Canuck actor Tom McCamus) keeps Foley on a short leash, but there’s no need for that, as this ex-con, operating by the rule of thumb that one mustn’t make the same mistake twice, is determined to walk the straight and narrow.
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Of course, the more he insists on going one way, the more he’s certain to end up going another. Foley does land a solid job in Toronto’s bustling construction industry, but a dark cloud follows him in the form of nefarious club owner and gangster Ethan (Luke Kirby). Ostensibly wanting to recruit Foley for a swindle, Ethan is in fact out to punish him for killing his father, Eddie (also Kirby, seen in flashback), who used to partner with Foley until one difficult grift that went south. Iris (Ruth Negga), a hooker on Ethan’s payroll, is made to seduce Foley, but she also holds the key to an emotionally devastating secret.
Ethan is one of those punk operators in a shark suit who thinks he has everyone under his thumb — until he doesn’t, which is when Foley’s stripes as a pro crook finally emerge. Jackson appears far more comfortable and engaged when the heat turns on than in the pic’s early, glumly paced sections, in a role that allows him more room to explore a character’s erotic life than he previously has. Unexpectedly — but in the end, not very effectively — a Tarantino-esque dimension emerges, not care of Jackson but in the form of effete Brit crime boss Xavier (Tom Wilkinson), prone to opining about wines like a sommelier before viciously dispatching his opponents.
Once Ethan’s scheme shifts into gear, with Foley in charge, “The Samaritan” suddenly appears in a hurry to wrap up rather than deliver the kind of deliciously intricate plotting that makes well-done movie grifts such a pleasure to witness. The sudden appearance of a new member of Foley’s team (the always compelling Deborah Kara Unger) and her just-as-sudden departure provide the tale with a new twist but rob it of complexity.
Jackson’s additional role as exec producer indicates his strong commitment to the material, even if the result doesn’t support his unique powers onscreen. Kirby overdoes the smirky bad-guy routine, while Negga brings some energy to that oldest of chestnuts, the hooker with that golden heart.
Francois Dagenais’ widescreen lensing is standard-issue but comes alive during some superbly rendered nighttime scenes that reek of noir. Other production credits are solid if not notable, with composer Todor Kobakov supplying the kind of spare, smart, piano-based score that works so well because there’s so little of it; Hollywood composers take note.