Remember back in the 1990s and early Aughts when James Patterson/John Grisham/Stephen King adaptations littered the movie landscape for as far as the eye could see? Ashley Judd was the land’s reigning warrior princess, stalking serial killers and bringing philandering, fraudster husbands to justice. Those were fun times, when world-class actors were thrown into outrageous melodramatic roles and directors could float implausible conspiracy premises on moody atmospheres and committed performances. (We got so many from Denzel Washington.) But if they got just one element wrong — a cartoonish villain hung out to dry by a bland supporting cast or flat cinematography — that kind of film’s whole mystique just dissipated; we could see that the emperor wore no clothes, and his dialogue was nonsensical. I’m looking at you, Harry Connick Jr., in Copycat, though I appreciate your teaching me about agoraphobia.
Dean Devlin, the director of Geostorm and the co-producer of Independence Day, seems to be attempting to usher in a renaissance of that era. His uneven new thriller, Bad Samaritan — with its title sounding very Grisham — tells the story of a low-level thief who breaks into a fancy-schmancy house and discovers a woman being held captive in a plastic-lined, camera-surveilled room. The homeowner proves to be a psychopath — who is also obsessed with horses. When the thief attempts to bring this criminal to justice, the usual game of cat and mouse ensues. Really, this premise is no more ridiculous than that of Kiss the Girls (1997), Double Jeopardy (1999), Fallen (1998), or The Bone Collector (1999), and acclaimed Scottish actor David Tennant commits to his role as seething, calculating villain Cale Erendreich. But there’s frightfully little atmosphere to this film — anything from creepy sound design to evocative cinematography — rendering the flaws in the story all too visible. (The screenwriter is Brandon Boyce, who’s also responsible for Bryan Singer’s 1998 flop of a Stephen King adaptation, Apt Pupil, which had Ian McKellen playing an aging Nazi in hiding and uttering the befuddling line, “Oh, my dear boy. Don’t you see? We are fucking each other.”)
From the outset, Devlin muddles the basics, like continuity. In the opening scene, when perky Riley (Jacqueline Byers) greets boyfriend Sean (Robert Sheehan) at his door, Riley at first is wearing a full face of makeup and a bra under her shirt, and then suddenly the lipstick is gone, and she takes off her shirt to reveal she’s got nothing on underneath. It’s difficult to get an audience to buy into a suspension of disbelief when the director doesn’t seem to care about the details. Later, Riley is roughed up to the point where I was positive she had to be dead, or at least have suffered a broken neck. The next scene finds her in a hospital bed with perfect eye makeup and a breathing tube down her throat. Despite that tube — usually there for people who are, like, in a coma? — our hero is relatively energetic, lifting herself out of bed to write “Get out” on a notepad and show it to Sean, as though she’ll just have a bruise and be fine in the morning.
While Riley’s character seems to be an afterthought in this story, Cale has been given the weirdest, most elaborate, and unnecessary backstory to justify his madness and violence. I won’t give it away, but suffice to say there is an awkward horse statue jammed into the production design of every room in Cale’s house and cabin. In some ways, Bad Samaritan is like Equus meets Don’t Breathe, but that’s giving it too much credit, considering the relative tameness of its action and dialogue. Devlin could have had Tennant go full Shakespearean malefactor, a fireball of bluster and hysteria, but Cale barely gets to say a word.
My favorite character, the abductee Katie (Kerry Condon), also gets the shaft when it comes to dialogue because for most of the movie, she’s got a horse’s bit wedged into her teeth. When she’s allowed to speak freely, however, Boyce lets loose with the film’s most cutting lines. And though Tennant ditches his Scots dialect and reveals a perfect American accent here, I found it a confusing choice that Devlin would allow the Irishman Sheehan, as Cale’s foil, to keep his accent, while both are supposedly living in Portland, Oregon.
At the very least, Bad Samaritan showcases how much rich assholes have taken over that once working-class city, as Cale and his personality-less huge house seem to fit right in; this picture has all the signs of a movie that got an Oregon tax credit and had to switch locations at the last minute and then somehow accidentally stumbled onto a Portland truth. But if you ever wanted to know what David Tennant would look like with a perm, this movie might be for you.
Directed by Dean Devlin
Opens May 4
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