MPAA Rating: PG-13
USCCB Rating: A-II
Reel Rating: 3 out of 5 reels
For over a decade, PureFlix has been producing some of the biggest independent Christian movies in the industry, including God’s Not Dead and The Case for Christ. While Samson may not be the biggest of those many movies, it certainly is the most buff, with a protagonist bulging with muscles and action sequences bursting with a sometimes surprising ferocity. This is new territory for the company which has always been “family friendly” but now ventures forth with its first PG-13 film, an action-packed film brimming violence, betrayal, and lust. This is not, however, a criticism. On the contrary, it’s good to see the producers willing to be more faithful to one of the Bible’s more difficult and racy stories when they could have easily glossed over the more challenging elements of the famous story of the Old Testament strongman.
As a Nazarite, Samson (Taylor James) is dedicated to God from birth, taking three vows: no drinking, no touching the dead, and no shaving. This gives him super human strength, but he spends most his time beating up bullies, chasing women, and pulling pranks with his brother Caleb (Greg Kriek). Yet when his new wife is murdered by the local general Rallah (Jackson Rathbone), Samson accepts his destiny as God’s judge and works to free his people from Philistine oppression. He does so through brute force, and then political diplomacy. Knowing Samson’s weakness for women, Rallah enlists his wife Delilah (Caitlin Leahy) to seduce the hero of the Hebrews in order find the secret to his strength.
This adaptation hits all the basic plot points of the biblical narrative while adding just enough characters and backstory to fill two hours. It doesn’t always hit the mark but stays true to the spirit of Samson familiar to any child with a decent Sunday school education. That fact may be the film’s biggest attraction and most problematic drawback. It’s an attraction because it meets the expectations of its core audience, but a detraction because, as a feature length film, feels like a cheesy throwback to Eighties strongman films such as Conan the Barbarian and Beastmaster.
The thematic focus is on God as a mighty conqueror. Before Samson smashes the skulls of his enemies, he prays for strength—and then his fingers quiver as if he is being endowed with supernatural powers. It certainly looks that way to the Philistines, who die by the dozens at his hands. “He is a god,” one soldier tells the Philistine King Balek (Billy Zane). “He is not a god,” the King screams. Indeed, Balek does not believe in even his own gods, telling Rallah they are only blocks of stone that are useful for controlling weak minds. This paints Balek not only as a pagan villain but a representation of our own disbelieving age.
Samson improves remarkably in the last act. After Delilah’s gives her lover the world’s most infamous haircut, Samson is humbled for the first time and admits his failings as judge. He recognizes that he has used his supernatural gifts foolishly and should have focused on God rather than God’s gifts. Blind and facing death, he prays not for himself but for one last chance to do God’s will. Only then does his strength return.
It is easy to tell the filmmakers are Christian and not Jewish, as icons of the Christian faith are everywhere. The biblical story itself—with its unique birth, supernatural qualities, and dramatic death—is an obvious foreshadowing. But director Bruce Macdonald takes this even further. In one scene, Samson uses his strength to open an immense wooden door, placing the bottom on his shoulders like the cross. When the Philistines torture him, they flog him while he is tied to a pillar, providing the audience with an opportunity to flashback to The Passion of the Christ.
Even for a PG-13 film, the violence in Samson is surprisingly graphic, especially given its production company. Samson kills without hesitation or mercy, so much so that even his fellow Israelites fear his wrath. Yet the scenes with his former wife and with Delilah are tame, sometimes downright mundane. Unfortunately, this gives more evidence to the (perhaps justifiable) stereotype that many Christian organizations are far more tolerant of violent imagery than sexual situations. This is not an argument that cinema should embrace immodesty, only that some sexual content would have been appropriate, perhaps even necessary, for this specific story.
Despite its occasionally dark material, Samson is more action-adventure than serious biblical drama. The only thing missing was a “kill count” graphic at the bottom of the screen. Taylor James fleshes out the role with humor, anger, and pathos to create quite a compelling performance, all while clearly enjoying himself. Samson is a wobbly yet important step in the right direction for a once underdog company that is slowly maturing into a major cinematic powerhouse.