Against all odds, the spy-thriller-with-bonkers-stunts-and-goofy-disguises-starring-a-guy-from-Top–Gun-and-based-on-a-1960s-TV-show industry is booming. Six Mission: Impossibles deep and Tom Cruise doesn’t have much will to live left to lose. It’s no minor miracle that his obsessive devotion to squeezing every last bang out of the moviegoer’s buck has overshadowed his obsessive devotion to that murky volcano-alien religion. The spy-thriller-with-bonkers-stunts-and-goofy-disguises-starring-a-guy-from-Top-Gun-and-based-on-a-1960s-TV-show franchise hit the jackpot with the only actor with the right kind of weird to not only make it work, but make it endure.
But what if they had tried it with the other guy from Top Gun?
The Saint was Val Kilmer’s easy way out of being Batman forever, or at least Batman & Robin. Not that Joel Schumacher was devastated by the scheduling conflict; he told Entertainment Weekly, “I pray I don’t work with [him] again.” But Kilmer’s difficult turn in the cape and cowl wasn’t just because the batsuit chafed. By 1996, as Tom Cruise was starring in and making his producing debut on Mission: Impossible, Hollywood executives were faxing each other a gag newspaper comparing Val Kilmer to the Unabomber. He proved he had an audience, but that wouldn’t mean much if nobody wanted to work with him.
So he picked The Saint as his salvation. If that seems like a lazy joke, it may well be considering he had no familiarity with the original Saint stories by Leslie Charteris, and little with the popular Roger Moore TV series. The director, Philip Noyce, at least confirmed his star’s intention: “Certainly he’s in search of a new reputation.”
And that’s ultimately what his spy-thriller-with-bonkers-stunts-and-goofy-disguises-starring-a-guy-from-Top-Gun-and-based-on-a-1960s-TV-show is about. Simon Templar is the greatest thief in the world and nobody at the same time. No job is complete without a few too many aliases, always the name of a saint, and far too many disguises, always clearly Val Kilmer in a wig and bad accent. He’s only in it for the money, until he can retire, and $50 million should do the trick. Good thing he won’t find love or threaten the fate of his free world with his last job.
If it sounds like standard fare for airport paperbacks with crosshairs and government buildings on the cover, it is. But those stories don’t usually open with the hero’s childhood mischief causing a little girl to fall to her death. Even fewer of those stories show her lying on the ground with blood trickling from her mouth.
The Saint is weird. There’s no better way to say it. While Ethan Hunt may be more Platonic ideal of “Hero” than man, the Mission: Impossible franchise openly admits this and, in recent installments, manages to find some shading inside those lines. He doesn’t have much of an inner life because he can’t afford one when the aforementioned fate of the free world rests on whether or not he loses his grip on the side of an Airbus taking off at 180 miles per hour. To quote the series itself: “Hunt is the living manifestation of destiny.”
Simon Templar is just emotionally stunted. He ran around the orphanage like a recess Robin Hood and took his share of beatings for it. We’re introduced to grown-up Simon as he blinks awake from the recurring nightmare of his crush falling 20 feet onto a parquet floor before his adolescent eyes because he didn’t catch her. This is never brought up again in The Saint, not even in the unlikely romance between Templar and the electrochemist played by Elizabeth Shue. He does read her diary and become her ideal, comically horny man so he can sleep with her and steal the formula for infinite cold fusion energy in the morning, but that seems to be an unrelated discomfort.
Templar is a cold cypher with only two speeds: goofy and creepy. One disguise imagines what Val Kilmer might look like before drinking the Nutty Professor juice. His best attempt at seduction is dressing like Jim Morrison (again), talking like a cartoon anteater, and wondering aloud what else a woman might have in her bra when she stores a note in it. Every false nose and fake tan is supposed to be a revelation, Val disappearing into another effortlessly convincing character. Hell, the feds keep looking between Templar as a Fabio knock-off and an entire collage of his police sketches and don’t recognize him.
The Saint isn’t Val Kilmer’s Mission: Impossible; it’s his Fletch. Instead of Ethan Hunt using masks sparingly and even then avoiding confrontation when he does, Simon Templar lives for the performance. His inevitable turn as a gay stereotype fails almost immediately; the villains see clean through him. He keeps up the ruse until he jokingly claims a middle-aged woman is the thief they’re trying to hire, then admits he knew that they knew all along. So why did he even bother playing a gay stereotype to begin with?
There is no answer because, somehow, there is no humor in this movie.
In the first 10 minutes, the hero proudly commits to a disgraceful Australian accent, steals a MacGuffin microchip, gets his ass handed to him in a fistfight, jumps off a skyscraper in a temperature-controlled bodysuit that’s only missing the motion capture balls, tears his fake mustache off mid-fall, and disappears into a crowd in time to give a random homeless man some vodka. And you better believe that random homeless man calls him a “saint.”
The 1996 adaptation of The Phantom was written as a parody and unwittingly shot straight, and that’s the only way The Saint makes any sense at all. It’s the kind of movie where the bad guy smiles and says, “I like this guy” after every run-in with the hero. The swindled electrochemist notices the pattern of saintly names before the police, within 10 seconds of said police listing them. Templar dresses as the villain, tells the goons to stop the real villain, and they do. A deus ex Russian family hides Kilmer and Shue, complete strangers to them, and take a bullet on their behalf, but finally turn them in when they start getting steamy in their hiding spot. Templar dresses as a literal Old Maid at one point.
It’s like Fletch, if Fletch were written by Tom Clancy.
Which is why Philip Noyce, fresh off the one-two punch of Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, may not have been the wisest choice behind the camera. Those movies, like the books your dad loves that they’re based on, take themselves as seriously as airport paperbacks can. But when Simon Templar sprawled out on a public bench like a leather-clad imitation of the Renaissance sculpture he’s sketching is shot with the same sober gravitas as Harrison Ford realizing the CIA is committing high treason, it’s all over. No movie that ends with the hero honking his theme song at the police he just outfoxed should be this sober. And yet its ending, which amounts to Simon embarrassing the villain on international television, belongs in a lesser Clancy book.
But I’ll give them the benefit of that particular doubt — they had to reshoot the entire third act a few months before the premiere. The original ending, including the ill-advised death of Elizabeth Shue and a climactic battle on a burning chandelier the movie repeatedly points at for no reason in the final cut, still shows up briefly in the trailer, scored by the orchestral might of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme to The Shadow — a big-budget flop that revived a 60-year-old character not enough people cared to see revived. Some omen.
In an interview two days after The Saint opened, Val Kilmer was already dreaming of producing the sequel. But it opened behind Liar Liar (which had already been playing for two weeks), starring another guy from Batman Forever. The Saint only sank from there. By Noyce’s and Shue’s accounts, Kilmer was a perfect gentleman on set, but that didn’t make much of a difference. One more expensive misfire, 2000’s Red Planet, and he was on the slow fade back into character acting.
Next year he’ll rejoin the other guy from Top Gun in another Top Gun, thus completing the circle of spy-thrillers-with-bonkers-stunts-and-goofy-disguises-starring-a-guy-from-Top-Gun-and-based-on-a-1960s-TV-show. One franchise is on its sixth entry and showing no signs of stopping. The other franchise isn’t a franchise. Neither paid much attention to their source material.
But at the end of the day, only one had Tom Cruise. And if there’s an absolute to movies, it’s that you never bet against Tom Cruise. Or else you get something like The Saint.