Natural Born Kilmer

When Val Kilmer walked away from the Batman franchise, it was only a matter of time before he offered up his own competing brand. The Saint isn't just his answer to Batman -- it's a full-length commercial for all the Saint movies to come. There's a breezy effrontery in the ploy; Kilmer isn't pretending he's in this thing for the short haul.

He'd better not be. If he pulls another Batman-style disappearing act, this franchise, unlike the Batman concession stand, will crash and burn. The Saint exists almost entirely as a vehicle for Kilmer's quick-change smarty-pants swagger, and it's inconceivable without him. He's great fun to watch -- a squirish master thief with a wide streak of lewdness.

Kilmer rapidly makes you forget Roger Moore's Simon Templar, a.k.a. the Saint, who wafted his cologne on the late-Sixties The Saint TV show and creased his dimples on cue. Before Moore there was, most notably, George Sanders playing the Saint in a string of entertaining RKO programmers in the late Thirties and Forties. Sanders gave Templar a brittle suavity that had its own trace of lewdness. Reputedly he came closest to the character first created by British author Leslie Charteris, who introduced Templar in 1928 and went on to write more than 50 volumes of Saint novels and stories. Kilmer has something like Sanders's gift for sly snideness, but he's a lot funkier.

In The Saint he slips in and out of more than a dozen disguises -- everything from a leather-suited human fly to a bucktoothed nerd. He hacks the Internet with the same aplomb he displays zipping through high-tech security systems in pursuit of microchips and corporate secrets. Templar's goal is to have $50 million in his bank account -- just what he needs to retire comfortably.

He gets tied in to a scheme to crown Russian billionaire Ivan Tretiak (Rade Serbedzija) czar of the new Russian Empire. Bollixing this scheme is Emma Russell (Elisabeth Shue), an Oxford scientist whose apparently successful formulations for cold fusion could upend Tretiak's plans: The more the Russians freeze in the winter, the more likely he is to triumph, but cold fusion means cheap heat.

Tretiak is a meanie in the James Bond mode, and The Saint retains a Bondian Sixties flavor; it's Cold War cartoonish. Philip Noyce, who directed from a script by Jonathan Hensleigh and Wesley Strick, gives everything an antiquarian shimmer. He's made a movie for audiences nostalgic for the bad old days of commies and caviar, and he really milks the Russian locations. (Red Square is practically the star of the movie.) The Bondian stuff extends to Templar's roguish way with women, which is hilariously deft and un-PC. He's like a swoon machine for females: one look and they're smitten.

Emma most of all. Their kissy confabs coax Templar's crisis of conscience -- how can he steal her cold-fusion formulas if he's in love with her? It's difficult to gauge how seriously we're meant to take this stuff. After all, Pussy Galore and Honey Rider and all the rest didn't get all dewy-eyed about 007; they didn't proffer poetry by Byron.

Part of the problem here is that, unlike Kilmer, Shue doesn't seem to be in on the joke. She's supposed to be playing a shrinking-violet romantic who's also another Einstein, but she doesn't seem very bright. Shue is trying to give Emma a soulful core, and it's a mistake, because the role -- the movie -- is too loopy for soulfulness. Her scenes with Kilmer are unintentionally discordant: She's being decorative and emotive, and he's being deeply cool. It's a mismatch.

Kilmer keeps things humming even when the action slows down or turns derivative, as in the scenes in the Moscow sewers, which summon up, faintly, the Vienna sewer scenes from Carol Reed's The Third Man. Noyce attempts a parallel between post-Soviet Russia and post-World War II Vienna, but it comes across as a piece of film-buffery. What's fresh about The Saint is the way Kilmer jazzes the buffery. You wait for him to keep turning up disguised just as you looked forward to Peter Sellers's Clare Quilty in Kubrick's Lolita or Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets. He should have been given a dozen more disguises in The Saint, but I suppose that's the point. Sequels thrive on such yearnings.

The Saint.
Written by Jonathan Hensleigh and Wesley Strick; directed by Philip Noyce; with Val Kilmer, Elisabeth Shue, Rade Serbedzija, and Valery Nikolaev.

 
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