Phillip Noyce’s “The Saint” (1997) begins with an opening scene so dreadful, it’s (to use the film’s favorite word) a “miracle” that it eventually does improve itself.
We meet a little boy in an orphanage, who defies his abusive guardians, declares his name to be Simon Templar and commits an act of rebellion that leads to tragedy. This Dickensian start, both off-putting and cutesy, like a music-free adaptation of “Oliver!,” gets this off to a rotten start.
The film finds its way once lead Val Kilmer takes over the lead as Templar and carries the film. In a similar way, this TV show adaptation provided Kilmer with an opportunity for career course correction.
“Batman Forever” (1995) was the biggest hit of its year and a commercial breakthrough for Kilmer, who had been a critics favorite at that point but not on the so-called “A-List.” Kilmer ended the year by co-starring in Michael Mann’s “Heat,” which is akin to standing out on a Super Bowl-winning team.
However, the very loud fiasco of “The Island of Doctor Moreau” (1996) and the press of it being a disastrous production plagued Kilmer’s reputation. “The Saint” was seen as a tailor-made vehicle for its star (though Alec Baldwin had been previously up for the role under a different incarnation).
Kilmer’s professional thief for hire isn’t just a figure with no known name or firm identity but a master of disguises and dialects. To put it mildly, the actor who once embodied Jim Morrison, Doc Holliday and Elvis Presley is an ideal choice for playing a man with an ever-changing exterior.
The plot that ensues involves a corrupt Russian leader (Rade Serbedzija) bent on taking over the Russian presidency. There’s also a business involving cold fusion, which is how we’re introduced to Dr. Emma Russell (Elisabeth Shue), who Templar initially approaches in disguise and with the intention of manipulating, until he falls for her.
“The Saint” provided a fascinating role for Kilmer, who we meet awaking from sleep and asking himself “Who am I?”
He then begins practicing an accent in the mirror – this is a rich window into Kilmer’s own process, as what better way to demonstrate what the internal life of an actor must look like. Kilmer connects with the haunted madness within Templar, too.
Shue, on the other hand, is supposed to be playing someone “eccentric” and, despite how much she waves her arms around during her big cold fusion speech, she always seems too glamourous and movie star vibrant to be someone who’d fall for Templar’s schtick.
Croatian actor Serbedzija makes a strong impression as the main villain, as the veteran actor would go on to play heavies in films ranging from “Mission: Impossible 2” (2000) “Stigmata” and “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999).
Noyce seems strangely out of his element with “The Saint.” There’s not a lot of action and what is there consists of dull fight scenes, unexciting pursuits, an explosion and more foot chases. Apparently, the idea was to make a romantic thriller, as the emphasis is mostly on the romance between Dr. Russell and Templar, who is taken aback by how deeply he cares about her.
As romantic thrillers go, it’s kind of dubious – by the film’s end, Templar (and especially Dr. Russell) all but declares him a genuine saint…despite the fact that he initially pretended to be an amalgam of a poet and her Dad in order to seduce her.
As spy capers with romantic subplots go, this plays more like a Harlequin romance – note how Kilmer is always the first one to get undressed, lose his shirt and smile for the camera. There’s nothing wrong with either Kilmer or Shue displaying their sex appeal, since it’s (along with Kilmer’s uncanny ability with disguises and accents) the film’s strongest quality.
There are interesting elements here, such as how it was filmed in Russia and, in light of recent events, positions a Russian villain out to destroy opposing forces. “The Saint” had one of the best soundtrack albums of its decade, with lots of “house” techno, but also some great tracks from Duran Duran, Daft Punk, Orbital (who provided a sharp update of the TV show’s theme music), Fluke (their “Atom Bomb” is irresistible) and that ubiquitous ’90s tune from the Sneaker Pimps.
As an adaptation and alteration of the Leslie Charteris-created source material, which changed with each incarnation (perhaps the Roger Moore ’60s TV series is the best-known version), it seems that the film lightly but affectionately nods to the source material: having Dr. Russell give Templar the gift of a pin that is obviously the logo from the TV show is a nice touch.
So is having Roger Moore’s voice the last one we hear as the film ends and the credits roll. However, the final shot of Kilmer sporting a halo (to be fair, it’s meant to be a reflection of the sun on his windshield) is embarrassing. Not helping is how the film has at least three climaxes and seems unwilling to end.
“Cold Fusion” was also the plot point of “Chain Reaction” (1996), the forgotten Keanu Reeves/ Morgan Freeman chase actioner that did far worse than this one.
“The Saint’s” big finale is set in Red Square, with hundreds of extras surrounding a political rally in which one Russian tries to humiliate the other publicly by proving cold fusion doesn’t work…until it does.
This isn’t the only preposterous and corny moment that arises, as the screenplay is tonally messy and overcomplicated. Somehow, Kilmer carries the film, in spite of itself.
“The Saint” made a lot of money but was so expensive, it wound up barely breaking even. Hence, no sequel, which is a shame and missed opportunity. Although the film is less than great and demonstrates a lot of missed potential, this was clearly a great fit for Kilmer, whose brilliance and incredible presence are in full view.
Had a follow-up arrived with a better, more focused screenplay, this is a franchise that could have gone the distance.
While Simon Templar (from evidence of this movie) would never compete with the spectacle and visceral thrills of the likes of Ethan Hunt or Jason Bourne, Kilmer (a far more flamboyant and risk-taking actor than even Tom Cruise and Matt Damon) was clearly up for the opportunity.
“The Saint’s” current following stems from Kilmer’s wonderful dexterity and showmanship in the title role and less so from the film itself.