Director Phillip Noyce’s 1997 suspense thriller “The Saint” is an entertaining but convoluted movie based on Leslie Charteris’ long-running book series and various radio, movie, and television spin-offs about a suave, Robin Hood-like criminal named Simon Templar.
Starring Val Kilmer, Elisabeth Shue, Rade Serbedzija, and Valery Nikolaev, “The Saint” pits the mysterious thief/master of disguises (Kilmer) against an ex-Soviet Communist Party boss/oil oligarch (Serbedzija) who wants to rebuild the former Soviet Union – with himself as absolute ruler.
Screenwriters Jonathan Hensleigh and Wesley Strick begin this James Bond-like tale with The Saint’s origin story. In a prologue set in a nebulous “Yesterday,” a young boy named John Rossi lives in a hellish orphanage somewhere in the Far East. After the ruthless headmaster punishes the orphans by storing all the food in a locked pantry, John – who calls himself Simon Templar after a famous order of Catholic knights – leads an escape attempt from the orphanage.
Unfortunately, the headmaster catches John/Simon Templar and the other children before they can flee, and the ensuing tragic death of a girl Simon likes leaves the boy emotionally scarred.
“The Saint” flashes forward to the mid-1990s. The Soviet Union has collapsed, and a severe energy crisis during a cold Russian winter threatens to cause millions of deaths in Moscow and other cities. Discontent and unrest threaten the stability of Russia’s shaky democracy. Millions of Russians, frightened and angry, look to the ultranationalist oil tycoon Ivan Tretiak, as their best hope to extricate their Motherland from chaos and potential dissolution.
Tretiak and Simon cross paths when the latter successfully steals a microchip from Tretiak’s oil company headquarters in Moscow. Tretiak’s son Ilya (Nikolaev) wants to kill Simon because the thief humiliated him during the theft, but Ivan is no fool. He recognizes talent when he sees it, and he needs Simon’s abilities as a master of disguise and con artist.
Ivan contacts Simon and hires him to acquire a cold fusion formula from Dr. Emma Russell (Shue) an American electrochemist. If Emma’s formula is correct, Tretiak will hold the key to cheap and ecofriendly energy – and ensure his grip on Russia’s economic lifeline. With a monopoly in the country’s market,
Simon accepts Tretiak’s assignment and, using several disguises, insinuates himself into Emma’s life. Eventually, pretending to be a South African citizen, Simon seduces Emma and acquires the formula.
But, as often happens in movies of this genre, Simon becomes emotionally compromised when he unexpectedly falls in love with Emma. Now, with the formula in his possession, he must ask himself where his loyalties lie – with the power hungry oil oligarch, or with the beautiful and idealistic Emma?
You don’t have to be a genius (or a screenwriter) to guess which of the two paths Simon decides to follow. Like the James Bond series “The Saint” seems to be channeling, the outcome is never in doubt. The only question viewers must ask themselves is How high is the body count until The Saint prevails?
Emma Russell: Who are you?
Simon Templar: Nobody has a clue. Least of all me.
“The Saint” isn’t a cinematic dud by any means. Director Phillip Noyce did a credible job with his adaptations of Tom Clancy’s “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger,” and he tries hard to juggle Simon’s ambivalent thief with a heart of gold story with a plot rife with post-Cold War intrigue in 1990s Moscow.
However, the film is plagued by a series of missteps made by Noyce and writers Wesley Strick and Jonathan Hensleigh. Though the scenes with Kilmer’s Simon and Shue’s Emma are engaging and the two leads have good on-screen chemistry, the rest of “The Saint’ seems to ape the James Bond series’ style and structure – minus the pizazz of the 007 movies spectacular special effects, amazing stunts, and energetic fight sequences.
Why is “The Saint” so uneven when it has so much potential? Phillip Noyce knows the elements of the action-adventure genre well, and he gets good performances from his international cast. By all rights, this movie should have been a franchise-starting blockbuster.
Perhaps it’s because the script underwent many changes before principal photography started in 1996, or maybe it’s because Jonathan Hensleigh was replaced by Wesley Strick after Val Kilmer signed on to play Simon Templar. Strick rewrote the script so it would gel better with Kilmer’s acting style.
Whatever the reason, “The Saint” is the kind of movie that gets a “meh” and a shoulder shrug from most viewers. It’s watchable because Kilmer and Shue make a sexy and genuinely likable onscreen couple, but the fight scenes lack energy, the stunts are so-so, and the story is unclear and often pushes the credibility envelope to its limits.
- Codec: MPEG-2
- Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
- Original aspect ratio: 2.39:1
- English: Dolby Digital 2.0
- Single disc (1 DVD)
- Region 1