Sometimes you watch a movie from another time and can’t help but think you’re watching a spoof of movies from that era. Such is the case with 1997’s The Saint. Directed by Phillip Noyce and starring Val Kilmer, it practically screams, “This movie was made in the mid-1990s.”
First off, it stars Val Kilmer, which is about as ‘90s as it gets. Then there’s the ubiquitous canted framing and blue-grey color palate that were so pervasive in spy thrillers of this era. A techno-heavy soundtrack features the likes of Orbital, Moby, and the Chemical Brothers. Hell, there’s even an Everything but the Girl song.
Along with Mission: Impossible the year before and The Avengers (not the Marvel movie) a year later, it’s part of a brief nostalgic trend of rebooting popular spy shows from the 1960s as major studio tentpoles. And it does that thing that so many movies tried to do at the time, which was find a way to keep the Russians as the bad guys in a post-Cold War world. Oh yeah, it was also one of a series of movies, along with the likes of Chain Reaction and a few others at the time, that tried to push cold fusion as a thing in the popular consciousness (And don’t get me started on the cool-‘90s-guy long hair that is all over this movie).
Upon release, The Saint was generally met with derision. Critics scoffed at the picture, calling it a generic, convoluted spy thriller that paled in comparison Mission: Impossible the year before. Audiences were similarly unimpressed, and the film earned $61 million at the domestic box office. (There’s some debate about the international totals. Some sources have it earning $56 million worldwide, while others claim it topped $100 million outside of the U.S.) This reputation is unfortunate because The Saint is actually a pretty damn good time and may be worth a re-evaluation.
The comparison to M:I isn’t necessarily fair, or even wholly accurate. De Palma’s movie is tense and thrilling and packed with Tom Cruise running all over the place. There’s a good reason it endured and became one of the premier action franchises currently running. While The Saint gets lumped into that, with reason, I don’t think the intent is necessarily the same. At least not entirely.
On rewatch, The Saint is goofy as hell. Granted, some of that is because there are elements that don’t age particularly well. This is one of those spy movies that the gadgets and gizmos and attempts to be high-tech felt dated by the time it hit theaters. And again, all the ‘90s tropes of the genre are on full display. But some of it has to be intentional.
As a filmmaker, Phillip Noyce isn’t exactly known for having a sense of humor, and writers Wesley Strick and Jonathan Hensleigh generally pen straight-forward action-adventure films. But while the film around him may play everything straight-faced, when you look at Val Kilmer, he’s doing something else.
The Saint revolves around a skilled international thief (Kilmer) hired to steal the formula for cold fusion from a scientist (Elizabeth Shue). His mission requires all kinds of elaborate, not to mention ridiculous costumes, wigs, and affected accents, and Kilmer relishes chewing on every last line and luxuriates in each of his character’s adopted personas. There are times when you practically expect him to wink at the camera or drop a Bugs Bunny-style one-liner before he leaps off a building.
This role earned Kilmer a Razzie nomination for worst actor, though he lost to Kevin Costner for The Postman, another movie I feel compelled to revisit soon. Tons of big-name stars passed on the role. Hugh Grant, Kenneth Branagh, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Christian Slater, George Clooney, Mel Gibson, Costner himself, and even Daniel Day-Lewis, all turned it down before the studio got to Kilmer.
I like to believe Val Kilmer looked at this script no one else wanted and recognized it was kind of trash. It’s hackneyed and bland, and the religious overtones are heavy-handed and tired—all the protagonist’s aliases are Catholic saints and he performs “miracles.” The main characters fall in love almost immediately for no apparent reason, there’s zero character depth or development outside of a few plot quirks, and it includes touches like Shue’s character having an ill-defined “heart condition” that has no name and for which she must take regular medication, until she doesn’t somehow (She’s also a scientist-with-the-soul-of-a-poet type). I like to believe he looked at this script, saw it for what it was, and realized he could have so, so much fun. And does he ever?
Though that’s what I like to believe happened, it probably was probably something else. The Saint was one of the last-gasps of Val Kilmer as a leading man in studio movies. Coming off of a run that included The Ghost and the Darkness, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and Batman Forever, he’d acquired a reputation as being difficult to work with.
With the exception of Red Planet a few years later, this was really it for Kilmer landing major roles in big movies. Though he continued to act, he was rarely the central player in bigger projects. In reality, he likely saw a lead role in a high-budget movie with franchise potential and jumped at the chance. Maybe he’s just goofing around or being an asshole on set, but whatever the reason for his performance, it’s a blast and makes this more entertaining than it otherwise could have been.
Still, even though The Saint generic, dated, and other movies do espionage better, and beyond whatever Kilmer is doing, The Saint is still worth revisiting. Noyce has never been one to blow the doors off, but there’s a reason he’s had a 40+ year career directing action movies. When this picks up the pace, it delivers solid, well-paced action. And any movie that stars Rade Šerbedžija as a Russian heavy can’t be all bad.
This also might not be the last we see of The Saint on the big screen. There have been rumblings for a few years of another attempt. In February 2020, reports surfaced that Paramount hired Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher to helm a reboot based on a script written by Seth Grahame-Smith (Pride & Prejudice & Zombies). Shortly after, in April 2020, the trades reported Star Trek star Chris Pine was in talks to play the title role.