‘The Samaritan’

Old-fashioned con man takes deception back to basics


One resounding truth about guys in the movies is this: They don’t last. Five years ago I was fantasizing about dinner with, oh, Mel Gibson (I know, I know. Terrible taste). Or Jason Statham (even worse). While on-screen, these guys did what they do best, which is offing evil-doers in crowded public venues or on congested freeways. They were cute and brutal and exciting and they could hold a drink or 10. What would it be like to hang out with these guys? Would they like Lobster Thermidor? What if they wanted to go to Hooters instead? These urgent ponderings yielded a lot of joy for me.

Then time goes by, and although the exact same guys are doing the exact same things, somehow their charm fades. As fantasy date material, their shelf life ends, and though it hurts, you cut them off and move on.

But there are exceptions. One who has an outstandingly long shelf life and a brand of charm tougher than BPA is Samuel L. Jackson. Cue drum roll for “The Samaritan.”

Jackson has the look and ambience of an alien from a crustacean planet, which adds so much more fun to his already considerable cache of watchability points. Fresh off the set of “The Avengers,” Jackson took a sidestep into “The Samaritan” — a story about a con scheme, made with classic noir components and with Canadian director David Weaver at the helm and British character actor Tom Wilkinson playing the villain.

The production notes say Jackson was drawn to the complexity of his character and the multiple twists and turns woven in the plot. He is named as coproducer and is pretty much glued into every frame for the duration of the movie. This is Jackson’s vehicle all the way, and you can see his relish in working on semi-independent productions such as this, even as he’s just as comfortable on huge-budget sets.

The story is weighty with self-importance, but that’s just noir, and there’s a sense of nostalgia in witnessing the familiar setups, betrayals and stylish but queasy violence, drenched in blood and reverberating with painful gasps.

Jackson’s character is compelling: an ex-grifter named Foley who has come out into the world (Toronto) after 25 years in prison for killing his best friend cum grifting partner. Twenty-five years, people. Foley has missed out on a lot of things: the Internet, Facebook, smartphones and, above all, the devastation of an economy he thought was strong. Foley takes all this in his stride and reflects on the parting words from the warden: “If you so much as jaywalk, you go right back in.”

Then Ethan (Luke Kirby) walks into his seedy hotel room and Foley smells big trouble. Foley had been in jail for murdering Ethan’s father, and now the son has turned up with a smirk on his face and murky schemes swirling in his brain.

Ethan tries to blackmail Foley into a “samaritan” con, which is when the con man approaches the mark as a friend and offers to do him a favor. It was a con that had worked when Foley was in partnership with Ethan’s dad. Now it’s a whole lot harder to pull off, though Foley’s promised take is $8 million if he succeeds.

He refuses flat out, but Ethan won’t take no for an answer. The younger con man is up to his ears in debt and Toronto crime boss Xavier (Wilkinson) is about to crush Ethan like a bug with the heels of his glossy wing tips. He needs to mobilize Plan Samaritan, and he needs the veteran skills Foley possesses.

There’s a woman, naturally. Iris (Ruth Negga) comes on to Foley in a bar and it’s hard to tell whether she’s looking for a genuine romance or a father-figure boyfriend. Iris is a heroin addict and elusive as hell; her character seems like an amalgam of “The Big Sleep” author Raymond Chandler’s equally mysterious heroines and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

Foley is at first totally infatuated, before he wakes up and starts getting a bit suspicious about his adorable, curly-haired lover. (Negga is definitely one of the “It” girls of 2012.) By this time, everyone is double-crossing everyone else and Foley gets sucked into a vaccuum of hidden truths and what-the-hell revelations. Rather than grab a smartphone to sort things out, Foley does everything the hard way — with his fists and a knife and a lot of shouting. Plus, he picks Iris up in his arms like a precious, bundle that weighs just 2 kg and walks out of the room with total dignity.

You just don’t see men like that anymore, in the movies and far less in the real world. Does Foley give a hoot about iPhone 5? Hell no (though it could make his job a lot easier). There’s a lot to be said for a guy who has spent a quarter of a century digital-free.