If you take the Old Testament literally, strongman Samson has a body count of at least 4040 men (and one lion) to his name. His biography — full of sex, lies, and disastrous haircuts — is a grisly one. Gouged eyes, mutilated animals, and satisfaction in mass murder distinguish the story of Samson, even in the section of the Bible where readers are encouraged to delight in the deaths of the Israelites’ enemies. The Book of Judges, in which Samson appears, could be read as “Game of Thrones” for ancient Jews.
Even during my Sunday school years, Samson struck me as a horny dolt, a cautionary tale of what can happen if you disobey God (or, I guess, trust women). Clearly not everyone agrees with my interpretation. Christian studio Pure Flix’s “Samson,” which opens the same day as Marvel’s “Black Panther,” recasts its titular muscle man as a superhero awaiting his “with great power comes great responsibility” moment.
The result is pure dissonance. I’ll first note that the film is just plain bad, with an amateur cast (led by Taylor James), cut-rate special effects, who-cares storylines, and confusing details shoehorned in from the Bible. Why do we briefly glimpse a cave full of foxes? I discovered the reason in Wikipedia, because director Bruce Macdonald, who previously helmed the faith-based surfing drama “The Perfect Wave,” never lets on.
The small tribe of writers behind the screenplay — Jason Baumgardner, Galen Gilbert, Timothy Ratajczak, and Zach Smith — do a reasonable-enough job of transforming a handful of Old Testament chapters into an epic drama that takes us from Samson’s reluctance to do violence against the oppressive Philistines on behalf of his people to his ultimate capture and redemption. (Do I need a spoiler alert for a 2500-year-old text?)
Billy Zane slums it as the Philistine king (his death scene is too short and unintentionally hilarious), while Frances Sholto-Douglas and Caitlin Leahy co-star as Samson’s first wife and femme fatale Delilah, respectively. A sadistic Philistine prince (the hammy-as-hell Jackson Rathbone from the “Twilight” movies) tasked to collect harvests from the starving Israelites keeps goading Samson into fights, and our dimpled himbo keeps falling for them.
But the movie’s most interesting clashes aren’t between Samson and the Philistine royals, but between Pure Flix’s intent to create “clean” entertainment and the obvious bloodthirstiness of the source material. Macdonald wants the piles of corpses (Samson’s ability to do violence is meant to be a sign of his sanctity), but without the strikes or gore. The ensuing PG-13 fight choreography is about as bloodless as a children’s tae kwon do class. The only battle moment that grabbed me was when James ripped off his already torn shirt to reveal his hairless, glistening chest.
Most disappointingly, the (theoretically) crazy badass scene in which Samson faces off against a lion lasts for all of five seconds. Those YouTube compilation videos of household cats swatting things off tables boast more aggression.
I watched “Samson” on Thursday night, the day after the Parkland school shooting. I did wonder if Pure Flix was on to something by shielding viewers from the kinds of gruesome hits and sword thrusts that we’ve come to expect from mainstream entertainment. But in the same way that depiction isn’t always endorsement, a refusal of depiction isn’t always discouragement.
In framing his final act of violence as righteous vengeance, “Samson” doesn’t renounce brutality, it glorifies it. Worse, the film’s holier-than-thou approach prevents viewers from fully grappling with the consequences of the violence it champions. Instead of offering viewers an alternative cinema, “Samson” just gives us the worst of both worlds.