(CNN)An animated, comic-book-inspired opening turns out to be the best part of “Samaritan,” a very by-the-numbers superhero tale that casts Sylvester Stallone as the long-retired title character, and otherwise feels like and exhibits the production values of a 1990s TV pilot. While tolerable on its own terms, the charitable thing to do critically speaking would probably be to ignore it.
Stallone produced in addition to starring in this Amazon movie, whose most obvious spiritual kin would be M. Night Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable,” down to the reluctant hero’s rain-soaked hooded jacket. Still, there’s also a whiff of his recent work in the “Creed” films in his portrayal of a gnarled old warrior grudgingly helping a youngster — in this case, “Euphoria’s” Javon “Wanna” Walton.
Said 13-year-old boy, Sam, lives in Granite City, a Gotham-like vision of urban decay and chaos, where he and his mother (Dascha Polanco) spend most of their time struggling to avoid eviction, along with much of the populace, who could use a symbol of hope.
Like all kids in these kind of movies, Sam is obsessed with a long-lamented superhero, Samaritan, who disappeared 25 years earlier after a pitched battle with his twin, Nemesis, who had turned to evil.
“I believe Samaritan is still alive,” the wide-eyed Sam announces, having settled on a reclusive neighbor, Stallone’s aging garbage man Joe Smith, as the latest suspect.
Of course, Samaritan would need a reason to come out of retirement, and that’s provided not by the erosion of civic norms but the intrusion of an aspiring gang boss, Cyrus (“Game of Thrones'” Pilou Asbæk), whose vaguely defined criminal plans do the one thing that might trigger Joe’s conscience — namely, put Sam in jeopardy.
Directed by Julius Avery (“Overlord”) from a script by Bragi F. Schut, “Samaritan” is probably at its best during the after-school-special portion of the proceedings, in which the taciturn Joe and eager Sam gradually if inevitably bond, with the latter unleashing his inner fanboy as he seeks to coax the old man to remove one mask and reclaim another.
The action, by contrast, is fairly uninspired, with one of the key visual-effect shots looking downright and distractingly cheesy.
About all that’s left is the modest kick of seeing Stallone in this sort of setting, a novelty that only goes so far. Granted, a little star power can be extremely useful when it comes to drawing attention to streaming projects, which is half the battle. What it can’t do, in this context, is transform a mediocre, nondescript premise into a good “Samaritan.”
“Samaritan” premieres Aug. 26 on Amazon Prime. It’s rated PG-13.