Film discussion

In Defence Of… The Saint (1997)

In our latest In Defence Of... James Murphy fights the case for 1997's The Saint...

The Saint kind of came and went, didn’t it? Passed from cinemas within weeks and was relegated, seemingly, to the canon of ‘flops’ from 1997, alongside Batman and Robin and the like. Spectacularly unfair!

The Bourne films use a similar editing method as they phase from location to location and the imagery of snow and Swiss bank accounts and so on. Brosnan’s Bond goes to New College to brush up on a little Danish in Tomorrow Never Dies. Kilmer’s Saint got there first in the same year.

Vin Diesel’s XXX and Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider favoured an aesthetic and techno-thriller ethos, modeled, a few years previously, and arguably better, in The Saint. And so on. The casting sets a precedent here: Rade Serbedzija turns up 15 years later in Taken 2 while Michael Byrne would go on to play a shady Russian spook in Tom Clancy adaptation The Sum of All Fears.

But if The Saint is so good and influential, even accidentally or unknowingly, then why did it under-perform and fail to hit and generate sequels etc? Because the film has flaws. Big ones. With bells attached.

There is a romance at the structure’s core, between Simon Templar (Val Kilmer) and Dr Emma Russell (Elisabeth Shue). And whilst there is a genuine conviction and chemistry to that, relative to plot and character arc, there is also a tendency to use it as pure filler. A ghastly scene in a restaurant (The Trout, in Oxford) concludes, inexplicably, in some woeful love poetry and a gratuitous scene of self-mutilation.

The Russian villains are cut and paste baddies of the week and attempts at making them in any way distinctive simply don’t work. The then in vogue post Cold War Russian Mafia / rogue military elements as baddies work far better in both The Peacemaker and Air Force One (also both 1997).

And yet? Still, for all the flaws? Brilliant. This is a beautifully shot, lit and edited film, harnessing locations at their very best (notably Oxford). Kilmer is a more than competent action hero. The score (from Graeme Revell) is divine and the wider soundtrack is basically a greatest hits of the 80s and 90s, including nice numbers from Duran Duran and Sneaker Pimps.

Watching Val at his 1997 peak exposes quite how low the bar has fallen in today’s cinema, whereby any old wally can now be crowned a matinee idol /action star. The Simon Templar disguises are works of genius, notably a German called Bruno: a precedent for Sacha Baron Cohen’s creation of the same name?

The romance, despite its filler nature is at least physically and aesthetically compelling, with Shue adorable and stylish in a black coat and boots. Emily Mortimer also features. The film just has a good energy about it. Infectious pace and possibility. Style, class and glamour.

Many bemoaned the lack of an English accent or discernible class in this iteration of Leslie Charteris’ creation. But if one looks back on the author’s vision, it was very much a kind of Raffles meets Bulldog Drummond pulp hero. In turn, television and film of course supplemented and diluted the pitch, from George Sanders to Roger Moore. Kilmer more than honours that pastiche legacy, whilst also incorporating nods to his own greatest hits (Doc Holliday, Jim Morrison, Batman). Fellow Batman Michael Keaton got a recent second wind in his career. Val deserves to follow suit.

Above all? The Saint was brilliantly directed by Phillip Noyce. He brings the kind of geopolitical techno thriller style he modeled in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. Also the clever casting (Alun Armstrong is Inspector Teale: the Sam Gerard / Lestrade / Javert to Templar).

It’s a shame the movie underperformed, despite active marketing drives that included a show for the Volvo Coupe at the Birmingham Motor Show in late 1996 (saw it – loved it). The potential for sequels was there, clearly. But perhaps it just felt redundant, caught between a then resurgent post GoldenEye Bond and an emergent Mission: Impossible.

I mentioned Jack Ryan a lot and that too suffered a similar fate, with two reboots never quite taking off, thereby necessitating its rebirth next year on Amazon. Perhaps Simon Templar could go the same way? Netflix is currently showing a failed pilot for a Saint TV show. But do not count this hero out just yet.

With the right production personnel, investment, cast and yes..that lightening in bottle magic timing, then perhaps the innate promise from the Simon Templar world could be recaptured and developed properly? Stranger Things have happened…

Did you enjoy 1997’s The Saint? Does it deserve this defence? Let us know!

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