The Saint (1997)

Phillip Noyce is one of those commercial directors who directs exactly what he is given, no more and no less. When he has good actors and a well-crafted script, he'll make a very good film (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger). When he has bad actors and a bad script, he'll make a very bad film (Sliver). With The Saint, he had good actors and a bad script, which makes for an incredibly uneven film which has no idea what direction to take.

The Saint is a detective named Simon Templar. A pre-Bond Bond type in the novels and stories of Leslie Charteris, he was a suave, brilliant detective who solved crime with a little charm and luck. Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan both starred in Saint adaptations before they assumed the Bond mantle. Now Val Kilmer (another debonair Englishman?) takes on the first widely seen American version of the tale.

In the grand American tradition, of course, the character must have a brand-new cheesy origin, incomprehensible emotional struggles, and generally be nothing like the original character, because, much as that character might have been perfectly suited for a jaunty action caper, the studio is only interested in buying a name that can headline a franchise. Well, this time they've gone too far, and I'm very glad they fall on their faces, because I never want to see The Saint 2 and the box office returns make it seem likely that I won't.

Simon is abused terribly in an orphanage in the Far East from which he later escapes. One confusing thing here is that this orphanage incident is labeled as occurring "Yesterday," while the remainder of the story, in which Simon is much older (Val Kilmer) and an international master thief for hire, is marked "Tomorrow." Now, I have no problem taking these metaphorically, but why put them onscreen in the first place? Because Noyce treats second-guessing screenwriters like sacrilege. If they write "Yesterday" and "Tomorrow" in the script, it's going to be on the screen.

Simon is hired by a Russian would-be dictator named Tretiak (Rade Serbedzija) to steal the secret formula for cold fusion, being developed at Oxford by shapely science girl Dr. Emma Russell (Elizabeth Shue). Tretiak's goal is to own cold fusion and use it to solve the heating crisis in Russia, which will presumably cause the citizenry to silently assent when he takes over from the elected government.

The only problem? Our intrepid (read "flaky") hero falls in love with Emma (duh!) and so halfway through the deal he tries to back out...or complicate the plan...or something. Chases, double-crosses, and weird people hiding in sewers ensue. The twists are pretty ingenious, if improbable, and are admittedly fun. But there are just too many details cluttering the whole thing up, taking the film in the direction of a romance, then an action thriller, then a story of political intrigue, then a future/science fiction meditation. The Saint becomes an exercise in confusion.

A word about Val Kilmer's disguises. In the film, The Saint is a master of disguise. He dresses up like a goofy-looking professor, a weird Spaniard, a South African artist. None of this is clever, entertaining, or tied to any kind of logic. The disguises are dumb, the accents are dumb, and there's no reason for them. Val Kilmer's a great actor. Now if he would just take off the silly prostheses and act.

It's not a bad film, it's just not very enjoyable. And that's the cardinal sin in my book. There's no emotional, suspense, or action payoff to the time invested in sitting through the thing. The one thing Noyce does do right is keep that camera focused tightly on his two leads, Val Kilmer and Elizabeth Shue. The eye candy is satisfying, but eye candy and a couple of clever plot twists cannot overcome the heavy burden of the rest of the film.


Links for The Saint

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review

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