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He’s a proper rogue, you see.


The Saint


Securing the rights to turn The Saint into a movie must have seemed like a no-brainer to Paramount. They were gearing up Mission: Impossible, so why not follow it with another readily recognisable property that had been great success on TV in the ’60s? A great idea on paper, but this is where the controlling influence of someone like the former Tom Cruise displayed visible dividends, because through its beleaguered path to the screen, The Saint simply becomes about the product of The Saint, having something to put in cinemas, and anything else – an appropriate star, director, screenplay – is tangential to that goal.

The Saint had been to the movies before, of course, most memorably played by George Sanders. It seems this version began life as Sydney Pollack movie, produced by Robert Evans; they were touting for Ralph Fiennes, so it’s probably as well it floundered (The Avengers proves the effortlessly charismatic leading man type is not his forte). Nevertheless, I can well imagine Pollack producing a smooth, classy affair, and it would undoubtedly have been more worthwhile than the pictures he did make around that time (Sabrina, Random Hearts).

Evans gets a credit, but he wasn’t involved (and let’s face it, everything he was attached to during that late-career Paramount deal was a bust in one way or another – Sliver, Jade, The Phantom, The Out-of-Towners). Phillip Noyce, the studio’s reliable go-to blockbuster journeyman with a hint (about a decade earlier, and a few years later) of an actual sensibility, came aboard. He’d delivered with the Harrison Ford Jack Ryan pictures, less so with another Evans production (Sliver, an immediate indication that, outside of Paul Verhoeven milking her for every ounce of allure, Sharon Stone was not going to be a box-office star). Jonathan Hensleigh would write the screenplay, apparently with zero idea or interest in who the literary Templar was. But Hensleigh was so hot right then – Jumanji, Die Hard with a Vengeance – so what better qualification (his lustre would diminish pretty much as soon as he set out on an inadvisably hubristic directorial career)?

So what you have with The Saint is a staunchly that’ll-do approach from the outset, based on packaging it efficiently, rather than diligently attending to the demands of the franchise/character. Nothing in Noyce’s history suggested someone with a lightness of touch. Even his big movies are all pretty sombre affairs (which, when the script is abysmal, such as with The Bone Collector, makes for a disaster). Hensleigh’s claim to fame is the Die Hard 3 cold opening (half hour), and that’s it. 

Syphon Val into that mix, Val at peak idiosyncratic star power, having become “bankable” again with Batman Forever and causing Richard Stanley and then John Frankenheimer conniption fits on The Island of Dr. Moreau, and this had no chance of being in the spirit of Sanders. Or Rog. Or even Ian. Wesley Strick was brought in to retool the character for Kilmer’s tastes, although it seems the elaborate disguises – not something the Charteris character was famed for, or abstaining from killing – were there when he arrived, but just got “more and more elaborate as the production went on – that was Val’s big contribution to that film, the disguises, and making them bigger within the story”.

Hugh Grant had been asked, which makes for an interesting “What if?”, since it wasn’t representative of any of his leading man roles at the time. And I’m not sure he really suggests someone classically heroic. The idea that Arnie refused the role is frankly absurd, though (this is the Wiki page talking). Who would remotely entertain the idea of Arnie as Simon Templar? 

Any hopes for a smooth production were less dashed by Kilmer playing up as an expensive reshoot of the end of the movie; originally, cold-fusion scientist and Templar love-interest Dr Emma Russell (Elisabeth Shue, not exactly capitalising on the attention that Oscar nomination got her) kicked the can with half an hour to go. This being the doing of villain Tretiak (Rade Šerbedžija, most recognised as the daughter-prostituting dad in Eyes Wide Shut), with the result that Templar returns to Russia seeking revenge and, having clinched it, vows to do good from now on. Sheesh. Why the studio would think to go with the female lead dying in a potential blockbuster is baffling – you don’t need test screenings to know that won’t go down well – so the movie ending up costing a reported $90m, compared to M:I’s $80m (you can see M:I’s budget up there, The Saint’s much less so. You’d probably have figured it cost half that). 

Dr Botvin: I have run every test on this cold fusion formula and most conclude that it is not merely incomplete, but rather impossible. You may as well try to create perpetual motion, Mr Tretiak.

From the sounds of it, there’s no proof, let alone a televised broadcast, of cold fusion actually working, as there is in the movie. That public display in itself ought to have put paid to the prospects of a sequel, as we know alt-tech is NEVER allowed by TPTB, even alt-tech based on the already rocky ground of the nuke lie* (at one point, having been asked to explain cold fusion by a student – who, being a student, ought to grasp the rudiments – Emma invokes one of scientist’s great charlatans (allegedly): “But if you remember Einstein. He felt the truth… it’s here. It’s in nature. When we ignite that cold fusion power”). So if Emma isn’t dead now, she soon will be. 

Emma: If cold fusion is free, then you and I, Simon, will be free too.

Or alternatively, we have a miraculous sequel set in an alt-world where one can drive “55 million miles on a gallon of heavy water”. Mind you, the final promise that an NPO has been established to develop cold-fusion technology (what’s to develop? We’ve seen it works) may be an answer in itself. A bit like cancer research, it will an endless, unresolved, self-sustaining organism. Notably too, the notion of the notional tech is underlined by emphasising something impossible by official laws of science (perpetual motion). 

Also notably too, it’s in Russia (by incident or design) that this world-changing tech is first demonstrated, which fits curiously with the ideas of some mystics both fair and foul (Edgar Cayce, Rudolf Steiner) that the nation would be a key part of any new golden age for humanity. Tretiak seems to be one of the guys – the oligarchs who made a lot of cash from oil interests at the time of privatisation and were subsequently greeted with variable scrutiny and antagonism by Putin (showing up on regulatory bodies’ and financial institutions’ AML lists due to tax evasion charges, amongst others) – who wouldn’t fare so well after Yeltsin exited, and one might see him as an Open Russia challenger such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky (not that I’m suggesting the latter is some kind of unscrupulous gangster, of course). There is much talk of Russia on brink of a second revolution and a life-and-death struggle for the future of democracy in the country.

This plotline puts Templar, a professional thief, at the centre of BIG events, because this is a BIG movie, and only BIG will do. Ultimately, the problem is less this reconception of the canvas than Noyce and Hensleigh never hitting on a tone or personality for the movie. It’s sadly shapeless, sorely in need of some fluidity (and since changes appear to have been on the back end, that can’t explain the issues with the first eighty minutes). 

Ironically, what really works here comes from Kilmer, impressing upon the proceedings a kind of whacked-out persona(s) as he employs various daft disguises. If Noyce had the mind to run with this, something delirious and choicely absurd might have resulted. Indeed, when Val appears with massive teeth, glasses and bald wig – very amusingly, it has to be said, and mooted as a riff on Brando in The Formula – you’re more in mind of Mike Myers, and under no doubt he had the comic chops (not especially well employed in his broadest comedy, Top Secret!, it has to be said) to play Austin Powers himself. And probably Dr Evil, Fat Bastard and Goldmember. 

Val having fun with accents and facial appliances is a hoot, frankly, and something you were never going to get from Cruise doing the same in M:I (where it’s all assumed identity). Indeed, the one moment of doppelgangering occurs with Tretiak doing a double take when Templar appears in a night club dressed as him. Otherwise, Kilmer is delivering outrageous riffs, often on past glories – Jim Morrison, complete with leather trousers; a Doc Holliday accent – and making you wish he was doing more of them, as his Templar himself isn’t very persuasive (particularly when he’s having childhood flashbacks on high roofs).

Thus, there are some great little scenes here. Val as intermediary for himself taking the job specs from Tretiak and his son Ilya (Valery Nikolaev, strictly a B villain, but probably the better for it) in an outrageously camp manner and then going to consult with his employer (a large lady he impresses himself upon at a nearby table). Attempting to woo Emma as a poet-artist (“Perhaps I’ll take you to my home in Africa”). And his final baiting of Alun Armstrong’s redundantly dogged inspector, doing the teeth-and-bald-patch act again.

There are a few moments that muster a decent set piece – a serviceable car park chase and a rooftop one too – but nothing you’d recall a few days later. There’s an unpersuasive romance with Emma; Shue is mainly to be noted for warming a frozen Templar up with her titties. Indeed, the most memorable part of the picture is the Orbital remix of the theme tune, its afterlife being far greater than the movie itself.

There have been attempts to get The Saint off the ground again since – on the small screen – to no avail. Rog, who made earlier cold-fusion classic Bullseye! with Michaels Caine and Winner, voice cameos here (much as Macnee would in The Avengers), commenting on donations to UNICEF. Yeah, Moore, alas, was devoted to the UN cause, the sap, and you can bet no level of involvement they have with children could be on the up-and-up. 

Sir Rog had it in his autobiography that Val came up to him at the premiere and admitted they blew the character, having after-the-fact read some of the novels. Well, at least he was honest. The Saint was unable to double its cost, gross-wise, so couldn’t even crack the Top 20 of the year (globally). The ’90s were littered with failed franchise reboots or remakes, be they from TV shows or comic-book properties, and a few of them (The Avengers) outright stink. The Saint fits safely into the flawed-but-interesting category. Had Val been completely off the leash, we might have had another Hudson Hawk on our hands (so we’re clear, that would have been a good thing).

*Addendum 24/06/23: So, I’ve been chasing the wrong conspiracy with this one, it seems. It’s almost inevitable that, when you think you’ve grasped the nettle of some subjects, you instead get stung to blue blazes. There’s long-standing theorising concerning the legitimacy of the nuke threat, and of nuclear technology generally, it took me a while to warm to it (probably in the last three or four years). Warm to it I did, though, and it seemed Q & A answers were confirming the counterfeit nature of the subject (this, however, as tends to be the case, was based on misconception of the parameters of the response).  The concomitant threat of mutually assured destruction is another matter, however, since one does not necessarily follow on from the other.

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