Samuel L. Jackson finally gets to put Nick Fury aside and play a serious, well-rounded character in The Samaritan, a new film noir. The experience of watching Jackson actually act is the primary pleasure to be gleaned from David Weaver’s movie, which places the star in a narrative that’s so grim and hopeless it’s no fun at all.

Experienced con artist Foley (Jackson) leaves prison after serving 25 years for the murder of his partner. He just wants to be left alone, but alas, that’s not to be. His partner’s embittered son Ethan (Luke Kirby) has orchestrated a gigantic snare aimed at forcing Foley to take part in an ambitious, risky con targeting crime kingpin/oenophile Xavier (Tom Wilkinson).

Foley spends most of the movie angrily resisting Ethan’s overtures, engaging in repeated violent confrontations. But his antagonist, played with sheer smarminess by Kirby, has a big trump card: a pretty young woman named Iris (Ruth Negga) who’s carrying a big secret.

Jackson ably carries the movie as the tortured Foley, balancing his usual tough-guy façade with stark inner sadness. He gets the rhythms of the character right, forgoing his overacting tendencies to hit more vulnerable notes. It’s as if he’s grown tired of strutting around as the biggest box office star of all time and decided to get back to playing characters that mean something.

But the story unfolds in fits and starts, with a lot of build-up and development spurring precious little payoff. We’ve seen the basic outlines of Foley’s journey many times before, and the character is a familiar archetype, albeit one given Jackson’s particular spin. The grim miserablism at the heart of the movie wouldn’t be a problem if it were couched in something more compelling than what’s offered by Weaver, who co-wrote the screenplay with Elan Mastai.

The filmmaker opts for all-around, all-encompassing darkness as his defining mode here, with the muted urban colors mirroring the downbeat mood. The characters are lonely and depressed, suffering through tortured existences. Weariness replaces the usual thrill- of-the-con spirit, and while you can’t help but admire the filmmaker for hewing toward gritty emotional realism, the movie could have used some levity.

The Upside: Samuel L. Jackson actually gets to act.

The Downside: The movie wallows in glumness.

On the Side: The Samaritan is available on-demand nationwide, if you don’t live in one of the limited markets in which it’s opening theatrically.

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