The Saint

Friday April 4, 1997

     What's the Saint doing in "The Saint"?
     Directed by Phillip Noyce, best known for "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger," both Tom Clancy adaptations, "The Saint" is meant to be that kind of James Bond/Batman franchise picture, a large-scale action adventure with running and chasing and things blowing up all over town.
     But as played by Val Kilmer, the Saint is one weirded-out dude, such a cold and manipulative game player that by the time he says, "My life is very strange, I don't do anything normal," it comes off as too modest a statement.
     It's an odd characterization, which Kilmer takes to almost too readily. And the Saint's tortured, duplicitous soul, his eagerness to disguise his real self, belongs to quite a different film than the boy's adventure Noyce and screenwriters Jonathan Hensleigh and Wesley Strick have put up on screen.
     Simon Templar, a.k.a. the Saint, a reformed professional thief with a taste for the high life and a weakness for doing good deeds, was created by Leslie Charteris in 1928 and subsequently featured in more than 50 novels and the very different Roger Moore-starring TV series. But the circumstances of his change of heart are nowhere noted, and that's the lingering question "The Saint" has been constructed to answer.
     It all started, a brief prelude announces, in "the Far East yesterday," at an orphanage where a young Simon Templar demonstrates a facility for sleight of hand and a stubborn refusal to acknowledge his identity.
     An accident at the orphanage further darkens his character, and by the time Kilmer takes over the role, Templar has become a calculated and cynical rogue who hires himself out to the highest bidder in the hopes of amassing the $50 million in fees he feels he needs to retire.
     And does this guy ever love disguises. Though audiences may be forgiven for losing count, Kilmer is officially credited with playing more than a dozen characters, including a stern Russian bodyguard, a gawky, bucktoothed journalist and a longhaired, leather-pants-wearing poet.
     Those who remember how tenaciously the actor embraced a Southern accent as Doc Holliday in "Tombstone" won't be surprised at the relish with which he approaches this aspect of his character. Gradually, however, this fetish for false chins and elaborate wigs becomes as unnerving as it is entertaining, a kind of indulgent, actorish game-playing that is always threatening to throw the rest of the proceedings off balance.
     A film like this is incomplete without a villain, and for "The Saint" the evil-doer is Ivan Tretiak ("Before the Rain's" Rade Serbedzija), a billionaire oil magnate and Slavic nationalist by day and the decadent head of the Russian mafia in whatever time he has left over from plotting world domination.
     Templar comes to the attention of Tretiak and his equally noxious son Ilya (Valery Nikolaev) when he successfully burglarizes their headquarters. Respecting professionalism wherever he finds it, Tretiak Sr. promptly hires Templar to go to England and steal the secret to a successful experiment with cold fusion from the scientist who made the breakthrough.
     That would be the winsome Dr. Emma Russell (Elisabeth Shue), a particularly girlish and vulnerable genius who Templar decides is susceptible to a poetic seduction. Soon enough an elaborate trap is set and the inevitably bizarre disguise is created to go with it.
     But if Templar gets more disoriented than he planned when he tangles with the naive and spirited doctor, audiences will share his confusion. For the future, the Saint is such an unpleasant and predatory manipulator, it's difficult to root for romance. And when Kilmer's mightily convincing Ice King begins to melt, it's so out of character with what's gone before that its believability is touch and go.
     Aside from the Saint's character, the rest of "The Saint" is pretty much as it should be for a film like this, with director Noyce and company investing the usual bravura set pieces with a showy sense of pace and the two screenwriters contributing some clever moments. But whereas something like "Clear and Present Danger" was briskly all of a piece, "The Saint" has difficulty making us believe that its diverse elements belong in the same motion picture.
     It's also interesting to note that, as reported by the trade press, pressure was exerted on the filmmakers to change the original ending to a more upbeat one than planned. Seeing how uneasily Kilmer's malevolent characterization fits the current film, it's difficult not to wonder about the quality of the presumably darker "Saint" that got left behind.

The Saint, 1997. PG-13 for action violence, brief strong language, some sensuality and drug content. A David Brown and Robert Evans production, in association with Rysher Entertainment, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Phillip Noyce. Producers David Brown, Robert Evans, William J. MacDonald, Mace Neufeld. Executive producers Paul Hitchcock, Robert S. Baker. Screenplay Jonathan Hensleigh and Wesley Strick. Cinematographer Phil Meheux. Editor Terry Rawlings. Costumes Marlene Stewart. Music Graem Revell. Production design Joseph Nemic III. Supervising art directors Alan Cassie, Leslie W. Tomkins. Art directors Lucy Richardson, Nick Palmer. Set decorator Peter Young. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. Val Kilmer as Simon Templar. Elisabeth Shue as Dr. Emma Russell. Rade Serbedzija as Ivan Tretiak. Valery Nikolaev as Ilya Tretiak. Henry Goodman as Dr. Lev Botvin.

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