The problem with “high-concept” movies is that eventually they have to move beyond that concept and tell a whole, satisfying story. It’s harder than it sounds. Just take a look at “Bad Samaritan,” a film about a thief who breaks into the house of a serial killer. He doesn’t know what to do next, and neither does the movie.
Robert Sheehan (“Geostorm”) stars as Sean, a photographer with a wonderful girlfriend, Riley (Jacqueline Byers, “Salvation”), who makes ends meet with a clever little scam: Sean and his best friend Derek (Carlito Olivero, “Step Up: High Water”) work as valets at an expensive Italian restaurant, and while the customers are eating, they drive their cars home and rob them.
It’s a smart idea for a crime wave, especially since they steal only small items which are unlikely to be missed. That alone makes them miles smarter than the valet thieves from Eli Roth’s “Death Wish.” (What did valets do to collectively tick off Hollywood screenwriters lately?)
But when Sean breaks into the house of a wealthy a-hole named Cale Erendreich (David Tennant), he’s shocked to discover that Cale has a young woman named Katie (Kerry Condon, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) chained up inside a room lined with plastic. That, combined with the creepy white room of many, many knives, convinces Sean that he has broken into the home of a serial killer. Worse yet, Sean only has a few minutes before the madman needs his car back.
Again, “Bad Samaritan” is a very clever set-up for a thriller, in which our hero is moral only in comparison to the villain, and in which his past mistakes precludes him from doing the right thing, the right way. It’s been done before of course, in films like “Beneath the Darkness,” “The Collector” and “Don’t Breathe,” but a good idea is a good idea. All it needs is a wily execution.
So it’s a shame, especially in a film about a serial killer, that “Bad Samaritan” has so little finesse. It starts strong, with some unexpected shocks and “What would you do in this situation?” suspense sequences, but as soon as Sean leaves Cale’s house, the movie loses all momentum and never gains it back.
The problem is that, since Cale quickly realizes his inner sanctum has been invaded and just as quickly covers his tracks, Sean is forced to flat-out tell the cops right away what happened , thus exhausting almost every tool in the movie’s arsenal. Watching a panicky young thief try to think his way out of immediate danger is exciting. The film even earns itself a Mulligan, when Derek asks why Sean didn’t just hand Katie the phone when he had the chance, and Sean admits he was too freaked out to be clever. It’s easy to judge a movie for that kind of oversight, but just this once, we might be willing to forgive Sean (especially since “Bad Samaritan” would be over immediately if he actually had thought of that).
In contrast, watching a guilt-ridden young schmuck freak out for half the movie because he’s out of ideas isn’t terribly cinematic. What’s worse, when Cale turns the tables on Sean and starts stalking him, Cale’s machinations are so banal they rarely escalate above trolling. In real life it may be disturbing to find out that someone stole your Facebook password and sabotaged your relationship with your girlfriend, but when that person is a serial killer, who we’ve already seen do infinitely more terrifying things, it just comes across as a serious dramatic letdown.
Dean Devlin previously directed the ludicrous but entertaining disaster thriller “Geostorm,” and although the genre may have changed, he’s once again working with pulpy airplane-novel material. Perhaps the biggest issue is that Devlin doesn’t seem to be having as much fun this time around. He’s got a story that playfully subverts audience expectation, and he sure seems to love his over-the-top dramatic reveals of Cale’s various victims. But “Bad Samaritan” plays out with all the somber determination of a plausible drama, and after a while the plot is simply too absurd to be taken that seriously.
The cast of “Bad Samaritan” is trapped in this material, and for the most part their only responsibility is to justify the next plot point rather than crafting interesting characters. As Sean, Sheehan gets to wallow in his guilt, and it’s refreshing to see a protagonist in this type of thriller admit his sins early on, so we can regain our rooting interest in him quickly. But that’s just one note, and he’s expected to play it for most of the film.
Meanwhile, Tennant is asked to snarl it up as a serial killer whose modus operandi has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. He’s obsessive-compulsive and has a thing for horses, and the more you learn about who he is and why he does what he does, the more you get the impression that the index card for his character simply read “SERIAL KILLER WITH GIMMICK,” and that no particular care was given to tie his behavior into the protagonist’s journey. And when there’s no cohesive theme to a story like this, it all becomes — to quote Homer Simpson — “just a bunch of stuff that happened.”
Granted, it’s a somewhat entertaining bunch of stuff. A few of the jump scares are expertly crafted, and Condon gets a climactic line of dialogue which might end up being one of the best of the year. But a few sharp moments can’t compensate for a film that feels half-developed and only half-heartedly told. Like its protagonist, “Bad Samaritan” isn’t quite as bad as it could have been, but it’s not good either.