A small-time scam artist (up-and-coming Irish actor Robert Sheehan, “Mute”) inadvertently stumbles upon a far more dangerous criminal (a sadistic serial killer played by ex-“Doctor Who” star David Tennant), earning a chance to redeem himself in the catchy if somewhat nonsensically titled “Bad Samaritan.” The notion of a well-meaning sinner doing penance for past wrongs may as well extend to producer-turned-director Dean Devlin, who’s evidently using this potboiler to atone for last year’s disastrous “Geostorm” (in which Sheehan also appeared), delivering a down-and-dirty quickie that’s less ambitious in every sense yet ultimately far more effective as a piece of shamelessly manipulative, armrest-clutching genre entertainment.
Banking heavily on the unconventional, almost-androgynous looks of its blue-eyed, ringlet-haired leading man, “Bad Samaritan” expects audiences to identify with an opportunistic hustler — and talented amateur photographer — who uses a Portland restaurant’s valet parking service to break into rich folks’ homes while they dine. Sean (Sheehan) and partner in crime Derek (Carlito Olivero) are running a pretty simple scheme: They take your keys, then use your in-car GPS system to steer themselves back to your home, swiftly nicking whatever you won’t notice is gone and having the car back before you’ve finished dessert.
According to the movie’s messed-up sense of morality, the duo only rob those rude, stuck-up jerks who treat them badly when pulling up to the restaurant (which is everyone, apparently), tapping into that simmering resentment that turned have-nots against the privileged 1% during the 2008 financial crisis. The movie doesn’t approve of this behavior per se, but it does take a certain gleeful thrill in the adrenaline rush of pulling off such a heist. Early on, Brandon Boyce’s screenplay (which follows a tight, B-movie template in the vein of David Koepp’s “Panic Room”) illustrates how Sean and Derek’s system works when a rich white family pulls up in a Range Rover, before efficiently shifting into more unpredictable territory when a far shadier character pulls up in his Maserati.
Clearly relishing every second of his role as a skin-crawling super-creep, Tennant plays the worst-case version of a Patrick Bateman-esque sociopath — an insufferable trust-fund kid who has used his wealth to justify a lifetime of outside-the-law behavior. At first glimpse, wrapping up what sounds like a sketchy business call, Cale Erendreich (whose very name sounds like that of the Ivy League son of a Nazi war criminal) reminds of those condescending my-life-is-more-important-than-yours customers who approach the counter at the dry cleaner, Starbucks or Sprinkles without so much as hanging up the phone, making the world wait while they multitask their business.
He deserves to be burgled, the movie seems to suggest, taking illicit satisfaction as Sean races the Maserati back to the minimalistically furnished mansion just a few minutes away. After opening Erendreich’s mail and activating a newly arrived credit card from the stranger’s landline (such tricks are so literally reenacted, it feels as though screenwriter Boyce has adapted a click-bait article on identity theft), Sean uses his keys to go snooping through the rest of the house, where he finds a battered and chained young woman (Kerry Condon) held captive in a locked room upstairs. Lest anyone mistake this for a kinky sex game, in a private chamber adjoining the garage he discovers what looks like a set from the “Saw” movies, a home abattoir complete with gnarly, blood-spattered tools.
Needless to say, Sean freaks out, renouncing his breaking-and-entering shenanigans right then and there. But his transformation goes farther than that, as the young man declares himself personally responsible for saving Erendreich’s victim, whatever the cost. His accomplice Derek isn’t so sure that’s a good idea, but Sean is determined to risk his life to make things right, setting off a ridiculous but engaging showdown between this poor immigrant (who’s inexplicably Irish at a time when undocumented workers from other countries dominate the news) and a lunatic for whom money is no object, to the point that he’s willing to murder complete strangers and blow up his own home to get back at the young trespasser.
Veering dangerously close to torture porn in places, “Bad Samaritan” evokes urban myths about an upper class so entitled that it hunts or enslaves people for its own amusement. Aside from repeated flashbacks involving a wild horse, a gun, and an ambiguous murder, the movie offers precious little explanation for Erendreich’s proclivities, apart from the fact that they tie back to his childhood obsession with dressage. As one of the consistently ineffectual law enforcement officers puts it, “So now, instead of breaking horses, he breaks people,” as if anything could explain the elaborate series of bridles and shock collars he forces his victims to wear.
It’s all thoroughly unpleasant, but then, that’s what audiences for this kind of movie want from the experience, so consider it a success of sorts. When it comes to sick thrills, “Bad Samaritan” is nowhere near as horrible as “The Human Centipede,” harking back to such early-’90s thrillers as “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Cape Fear,” and “The Vanishing.” Apart from those attracted to the idea of seeing a “Doctor Who” star sink his teeth into such a role, the cast is virtually unrecognizable, but the production values are high, rendering its consistent suspense all the more unsettling by cinematographer David Connell’s cold, extreme-widescreen lensing. The movie implies that under different circumstances, Sean might be a gifted photographer, underscoring that both Devlin and his DP appear to be wasting their potential on such depraved material. One thing’s for sure: You won’t think of valeting your car the same way again.