Who would've thought, after his tenure on Doctor Who, that David Tennant would be typecast not as an eccentric hero, but as a sadistic villain? That’s what happened in Bad Samaritan, with Tennant clearly cast off the back of his role in Netflix’s Jessica Jones. The results aren't great, but I’ll be damned if they’re not consistently entertaining.
Bad Samaritan centres on Sean Falco (Robert Sheehan, British TV's Misfits), an aspiring photographer and achieving burglar, who runs a scam wherein he and a friend work as valets, follow their customers’ cars’ GPS units home, then burgle their houses. It's a successful grift, until Sean discovers young woman Katie (Kerry Condon) chained up in an expensive house full of torture equipment and horse-themed artwork. When the cops find nothing amiss with the homeowner, wealthy businessman/asshole Cale Erendreich (Tennant), Sean tasks himself with freeing Katie and bringing down the man who imprisoned her.
Damsel-in-distress elements aside, that’s a novel concept! Small-time criminals stumbling upon big-time crime is always a strong premise. It's when the cat-and-mouse game begins that things get squirrely - and the movie soars to untold heights of ridiculousness.
Writer Brandon Boyce and director Dean Devlin clearly put more thought and energy into Bad Samaritan’s villain than its hero. Cruel and methodical, Cale's captivity of Katie and pursuit of Sean (and torment, variously, of both) are portrayed with gleeful relish and attention to detail. His obsession with human “dressage” and behavioural correction - linked to a childhood of breaking in horses - is so strange, so rooted in high-concept movie logic, that the antiques store's worth of horse iconography in the film becomes a hilarious series of escalating visual gags. In attempting to ruin Sean’s life, Cale uses tactics employed by channers and other digital terrorists - getting his relatives fired, hacking his Facebook to ruin his relationships, and so on. Up until the point where he starts maiming and killing people, it’s a comically petty series of tactics for someone who keeps people locked in cages as a hobby.
Tennant acts voluminously here, cranking up his Killgrave villainy several notches from his comparatively restrained Jessica Jones turn. Despite the obvious love lavished upon him by the key creatives, Cale's not all that complex a character, forcing Tennant to compensate with sheer scale. Hence, we get scenes of Erendreich grinning smugly while Facebook-trolling Sean, leering down obnoxiously wide camera lenses at nearly everyone, and screaming “I AM A MESSIAH!” for no discernable reason. It's delightful to watch such a talented actor flailing about like this, giving a true “fuck-it” performance in what must have been a near-total vacuum of creative direction.
Robert Sheehan fares better as the humble, hapless immigrant at the centre of all this nonsense. Whether he's charming his girlfriend, pleading with America's least convincing FBI agents, or raging against his tormentor, he plays Sean as a veritable fountain of empathy, giving his all to an underwritten role (though not as egregiously underwritten as poor Kerry Condon's). Sheehan's better than the material, seemingly the only person on the production who makes it from scene to scene as if he's still in the same movie. Were the film of a higher calibre, it'd be a strong breakout American performance for the Irish actor.
The same can't be said of the direction. Despite his longtime presence in the world of cinema (having previously written and/or produced Independence Day, Stargate, and Godzilla, among others), this is only the second film by Dean Devlin as director, after Geostorm - and it shows. Both films demonstrate Devlin's lack of tonal control - or, if he was aiming for barely-restrained ridiculousness beneath a veneer of sincerity, maybe both films demonstrate a mastery of it. Some scenes play sadistically, while other scenes are performed and directed for broad laughs. Joseph LoDuca’s overactive score sounds like the non-slowjam parts of Mladen Milicevic's score to The Room, which doesn't aid any attempt to take the film seriously. And even in a relatively contained psychological thriller like this, Dean Devlin cannot resist blowing up a building. You get the impression he's like Ed Wood's meat-packing magnate Don McCoy: “Biiiiig explosion. Sky full of smoke.”
The most intriguing parts of Bad Samaritan tease at the narrative and thematic roads not traveled. Though Boyce’s script takes great pains to assure us Erendreich's torture and motivation is nonsexual, the studded-leather visual language reeks of bondage and master/slave play. There's even a reference to Tumblr porn, which sparks questions as to the fantasies Boyce or Devlin are indulging here. A more interesting version of this movie would also have made more of its rich-vs-poor conflict, with the police taking Erendreich's side simply because he's a well-heeled white American. And action-wise, the movie wastes a weird obsession with Erendreich's remote-controlled smart-home appliances, never quite coming up with a setpiece that uses them well - a setpiece anyone watching the first half of the movie would be sure was coming.
Bad Samaritan is worth seeing for fans of David Tennant, and more comprehensively for lovers of strange cinema. It's a bizarre little movie full of inexplicable character choices and wildly imbalanced directorial decisions, but despite its objective flaws, it makes for an oddly fun watch. I laughed frequently and never checked my watch. Not even all “good” movies manage that.