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Movie review: Big-screen 'Samson' can't match its biblical source material

"SAMSON" — 2½ stars — Jackson Rathbone, Billy Zane, Taylor James, Caitlin Leahy; PG-13 (violence and battle sequences); in general release

“Samson” is kind of a glass half-full/half-empty situation. As a lower-budget period drama, it’s a decent production, but it is a Bible story that doesn’t quite feel biblical. It has its strengths — no pun intended — but Bruce Macdonald’s Old Testament adaptation just can’t do justice to its larger-than-life source material.

Based on the account from the book of Judges, “Samson” tells the rise and fall of the Hebrew champion who single-handedly slew thousands of Philistines. The story takes place around 1100 B.C. in ancient Israel, when the Hebrews were under Philistine occupation.

We meet Samson (Taylor James) as a grown man whose reputation for immense strength is already spreading. Though his family and friends insist that his brutal might is the fulfillment of prophecy, destined to free his people from their enslavement, Samson is more of a pacifist, frustrated that his lifelong dedication to his Nazarene heritage hasn’t moved God to lighten his people's burden.

Yet Samson consistently finds himself showing off various feats of strength, one of which introduces him to Taren (Frances Sholto-Douglas), a Philistine woman who quickly wins his heart. With a little persuasion, Samson manages to convince his parents (played by Rutger Hauer and Lindsay Wagner) to approve his marriage, but the Philistine King Balek (Billy Zane) and his son Prince Rallah (Jackson Rathbone) see the union as an opportunity to get rid of the rising Hebrew threat to their power.

From here, “Samson” loosely follows the trajectory of its Old Testament source material as Samson kills the lion, loses his wife and slays a thousand Philistines with a jawbone. Most anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the story will see it heading toward the treachery of Delilah (Caitlin Leahy), who is portrayed here as Prince Rallah’s betrothed before being manipulated into a relationship with Samson.

The creation of the Prince Rallah character is just one example of “Samson’s” departure from its source material, and Bible purists may strain against a story that, while generally faithful, has to take liberties with the story (including a few deletions) to get from point A to point B.

But the bigger problem is that in spite of some sound production quality — especially for a film with a comparatively low budget — “Samson” never quite inspires the kind of larger-than-life grandeur to fit its legendary story. James is built like an action hero but can’t match the charisma of a role that seems designed for Dwayne Johnson, or a Conan-era Arnold Schwarzenegger (though to be fair, even The Rock’s presence didn’t help 2014’s “Hercules”).

Perhaps most importantly, even though Leahy seems perfectly capable as an actress, “Samson” doesn’t do near enough with the Delilah story to justify its iconic status. Aside from feeling undeveloped, Macdonald’s film seems to want us to sympathize with Delilah rather than see how she became such a symbol of infamy.

The result is a film that tries hard but feels like a casual shrug of the shoulders: a passable adventure with a handful of decent action scenes that feature some positive themes about prayer and faith rather than a drama that does justice to its iconic story. “Samson” might work as a family-friendly Bible adaptation for a mellow Sunday afternoon on TV, but not so much for a full ticket price weekend at the movies.

"Samson" is rated PG-13 for violence and battle sequences; running time: 110 minutes.