Simon Templar -- a k a the Saint, Leslie Charteris' pulp hero -- like James Bond, is a cunning mixture of gent and bastard, sophistication and moxie. Reading the agreeably dapper nonsense the late Charteris churned out in the nearly 50 books he wrote from 1928 through the '60s is like coming across the sort of old movie you always hope to find on TV when you're sick at home.
There's no mention of Charteris to be found anywhere in the new screen version of "The Saint," starring Val Kilmer as Templar. After a while I suspected the omission was less an oversight than simple respect for the dead. This "Saint" is a glum piece of post-Cold War paranoia, and director Phillip Noyce approaches it with the same plodding earnestness he brought to his Tom Clancy adaptations ("Patriot Games," "A Clear and Present Danger").
Noyce directs this espionage pulp as if he's giving us a believable treatise on foreign affairs. The object of paranoia here is, as usual, Russia. A Zhirinovsky-like demagogue with long, Euro-scum hair (Rade Serbedzija) is trying to take over the nation, with the help of the remnants of the former Soviet military and the ruthless new Russian mafia. This crew is out to eliminate an American scientist (Elisabeth Shue) who's developed a formula for cold fusion that could solve the country's energy crisis. Probably the only way for this ludicrous material to still work on the screen is as a frivolous, affectionate period piece. Unfortunately, Noyce's cheerlessness is more than matched by the way screenwriters Wesley Strick and Jonathan Hensleigh have reconceived Simon Templar.
In this version, Templar is no longer a playboy with a taste for luxury and sarcasm. He's a morose loner, a thief-for-hire burdened by the traumatic childhood memory of a stunt he attempted in the sadistic orphanage where he was raised; it resulted in the death of the girl he loved. History threatens to repeat itself when he ends up falling for Shue's scientist after the baddies have hired him to steal her formula.
I'm not convinced that Val Kilmer has enough generosity in him to be a romantic lead. He was charming and wacky in Martha Coolidge's teen comedy "Real Genius," and his Doc Holliday in "Tombstone" (his best performance) had some of the emaciated dash of John Carradine in "Stagecoach." But as an actor, he's too preoccupied with himself to be believably involved with someone else. He's a very odd case. Kilmer appears aloof, but he's usually acting up an idiosyncratic storm. He's a supremely untrustworthy actor, which might be fine in a master of disguise who has to gain the confidence of people in order to trick them. It's all wrong in a rogue who sees the error of his ways and gives in to love. And it doesn't make you feel any more warmly toward Kilmer that it's Elisabeth Shue he's trying to fool.
By now, there's been enough publicity about how "The Saint" was rewritten and reshot after preview audiences objected to Shue's character being killed off that I won't worry about giving anything away. As much as I loathe pre-release testing (even hacks should be able to make the movie they want), I can't blame those audiences. Without Shue's warm, pliable presence, there's nothing to hang onto in "The Saint." And yet, this must be the worst-conceived role foisted on a talented actress in recent memory. It's particularly dispiriting coming after her heartbreaking performance in "Leaving Las Vegas," because "The Saint" gives her exactly the sort of role that for years kept Shue from being considered for good parts.
In "The Saint," Shue is stuck playing that wheezing old clichi, the brilliant woman who's starved for love. And if that isn't bad enough, they've saddled her with the hoary suspense device of having a heart condition. I could maybe accept her as a woman holding out for her romantic ideal, or even as one so caught up in her work she's neglected her personal life. But does anyone believe that a woman as beautiful as Elisabeth Shue would have no suitors at all? It's no insult to Shue to say that she's not believable as a scientist, not when the moviemakers expect us to buy notions like her storing her potentially world-shaking formula for cold fusion on post-it notes stashed in her bra.
I don't think there's a scene, though, where Shue isn't in there pitching. She does her damnedest to validate the romantic-adventure clichis that the movie trades in. You can see it in the turned-on look in her eyes when Kilmer rescues her from danger, and the hungry, messy way she kisses him. Unfortunately, this is the sort of bum role where trying can make an actor look foolish. Shue escapes that, but barely, and I'm not sure just how. Perhaps it's simply her eagerness to do good work. I can't imagine that this role is what anyone wished for Elisabeth Shue, but there are worse fates for an actor than coming off as the only human being in a soulless piece of claptrap like this.