There's too much plot and not enough story in "The Saint." It's one of those big, busy things that doesn't quite work: Every two minutes a baffling new character enters, speaks in a heavy Russian accent and tilts the movie in some unfathomable direction. You sit there waiting for something not to happen, for a moment of repose, so you can add it all up.
The movie re-creates the famous Leslie Charteris character, the elegant, unflappable, bemused professional thief Simon Templar, played previously by slick cads Roger Moore and George Sanders. They had such natural elan that their hair stayed in place far before the invention of mousse, and boy, could the two of them teach Val Kilmer a thing or two!
Kilmer's take is sweatier, more existential, a man shattered by guilt over a tragic episode from his past. His fixation on saints is a reflection of his pure neuroticism. An orphan, haunted by his own lack of identity, he's turned that weakness into a strength, and his specialty is becoming someone new. This gives Kilmer a chance to gobble the scenery in a number of showy disguises and some indecipherable accents and even to kid his own career: He initially seduces his mark, Elisabeth Shue, by doing a riff on his Jim Morrison role in "The Doors," but it's her fire he lights, not the other way around. It must be those black leather jeans and that doomed poet languor as he lounges about in Shelley's bier. Actually, Shue's Emma is a far more interesting character. She's presented as an Oxford researcher who's discovered a new energy source -- cold fusion, never explained clearly enough for the movie -- which makes her the target of a billionaire Russian oil magnate (Serbian actor Rade Serbedzija) who also has nationalist political aspirations. The Russky hires Templar to steal the "formula," which she too cutely has written on squares of note paper and then stuffed into her brassiere. It's that kind of movie.
But Shue has thought about the role and invented an unexpected strain to the character, who's more childlike, far more innocent and far more vulnerable than you'd expect. Her character arc is toward knowledge and confidence, toward experience, while Kilmer's is toward more self-consciousness. He's looking inward, she's looking outward. Odd: One is trying to become less reflective, the other more. How long can this relationship last?
Perhaps the audience won't care, because it'll be trying to figure out what cold fusion is and trying to stay up with developments that bounce this way and that, ultimately landing for the last hour in Moscow. The Saint steals the formula and provides it to his bosses, but they betray him. He outmaneuvers them and, having fallen in love with Shue, becomes her protector. Meanwhile, the nasty and dynamic Serbedzija is also plotting a coup against the government, and his son (Valery Nikolaev), also nasty, is leading the gunmen in the hunt for the Saint and his charge through the alleys, sewers and lanes of Moscow.
The plot somehow never really finds the clarity to produce a big emotional moment. It turns on cold fusion -- is it real or an illusion? -- and director Phillip Noyce, a vet of a lot of big-budget hugger-mugger in the Harrison Ford films from the Clancy novels, can't quite ever get it into focus. This leads to the movie's biggest moment, when bad boy Serbedzija is snookered in public in front of the international media. And it just doesn't work. That pffft! you hear is the air going out of the balloon.
That's not quite to say "The Saint" doesn't offer a fair return of pleasure for your seven bucks. Some of the action sequences are nicely done and very thrilling, particularly the opener and another chase along the frozen edge of the Neva with bad guys up top and Simon and Emma skittering along a frail shell of ice to evade them. But these thrills are discrete rather than cumulative; the movie never builds, and when they're done, they're gone.
In fact, the setting is the best thing about all this running around: wild and woolly post-Red Moscow, the new Dodge City or Barcelona of the world.
Even to movie-jaded eyes, it is mind-blowing to see the crenelated towers of the Kremlin and the vast brickery of Red Square as backdrops in a big, stupid, expensive American movie; the damned actors just kept getting in the way.
Starring Val Kilmer and Elisabeth Shue
Directed by Phillip Noyce
Released by Paramount
Rated PG-13 (sexual innuendo, violence)
Sun score: ** 1/2
Pub Date: 4/04/97