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Templar Exemplar

The Saint
Frank Connor

Saint Necessarily True: The Saint (Val Kilmer) sheds identities like shirts as he romances cold-fusion expert and secret-smuggling Dr. Emma Russell (Elisabeth Shue).

Witty 'Saint' bucks the brainless trend in action films

By Richard von Busack

SIMON TEMPLAR (Val Kilmer), the titular hero of The Saint, is James Bond with better manners. He doesn't carry a gun and doesn't take lives. Templar has many identities and disguises, a laptop computer, and a tool the size of a beeper with about 20 different functions.

In the Russia of "tomorrow" (as a title has it), Templar scales a Moscow skyscraper to steal a computer chip. The theft makes him some good money when he ransoms the chip back to a Russian billionaire named Ivan Tretiak (Rade Serbedzija), who plans to horde Moscow's heating oil until a new revolution breaks out, so that he can become dictator.

In the meantime, Tretiak is concerned with the efforts of an American scientist to make cold fusion work. Fearing a new source of energy that would make his oil worthless, Tretiak hires the freelancing Templar to capture the formula from the scientist, Dr. Emma Russell (Elisabeth Shue).

Naturally, Templar falls in love instead and decides to seduce Russell with his wealthy-wastrel act. When she first sees him, he's shamelessly lounging, his long hair flowing, on a bench next to the Shelley monument in Oxford--the dead young poet is in marble, sprawled nude. Giving Russell's character a weakness for the Romantic poets was an inspired idea. A physicist with faith that cold fusion can really work is a romantic and thus the perfect mate for a Simon Templar.

The Saint comes to a weird, slapped-together climax. One critic I ran into on the way out said, "I tried not to like this," and I knew what he meant. There are passages of such sloppy plotting it is as if the filmmakers were deliberately trying to throw the viewer off course.

Shue's Dr. Russell is more of a genuine ditz than an absent-minded scientist. She may possess the secret to an energy source that will save the world, but does she have to keep the formula stashed in her bra? This movie badly needed a rewrite, yet Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger) directs The Saint with obvious love and a sense of interest.

THE OPENING is remarkable: a 20-minute sequence that links the style of the boy's-school entertainments that foaled Leslie Charteris' hero in 1928 with the more millennial tales of the superspies of the '60s. And Noyce revels in the Russian locations; everything is strange and exciting to him. You feel as if you've really seen Moscow after you've seen The Saint.

A number of clever glancing details sum up the situation: a thrown-away line about a mahogany elevator that was burned for firewood, a view of a monumental stone star that has a point or two worn away from neglect, a visit to "The Rat Club," where expensively dressed gangsters stack gross bundles of $100 bills on silver platters to bet on rats racing through neon-lit tubes along the walls. All of Moscow seems to be similarly riddled with tunnels; there's even an underground (literally) contraband market below the sewers where you can buy Old Master paintings.

Noyce also seems to love his stars; he takes pleasure in presenting their preposterously handsome faces. He is so taken by their beauty, in fact, that the love scenes are all above the neck. In the intimate moments, we hardly see their bodies at all. And when we get flashes of Kilmer's deltoids or Shue's breast, the images evoke an eroticism that would have been missed if the camera had just mapped their physiques.

Shue's Russell looks bewitched and off-balance; Templar keeps her that way. And the Saint doesn't sulk, either. Kilmer has always been a lightweight brooder, and like his fellow looker Antonio Banderas, he's easy to underrate unless he gets the right kind of comedy.

On one level, The Saint is an empty spy movie, but on another, it's a real experiment, a bucking of the urge to make action movies noisier, grittier and more exhausting. Unfortunately, Noyce's spirited search for elegance in the framework of a mainstream movie is probably doomed.

The Saint may not have much of a prayer at the box office, but it's worth acknowledging the charm of a movie that, like its hero, is more interested in beguiling than in killing.

The Saint (PG-13; 117 min.), directed by Phillip Noyce, written by Jonathan Hensleigh and Wesley Strick, photographed by Phil Meheux and starring Val Kilmer and Elisabeth Shue.

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From the April 10-16, 1997 issue of Metro

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