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'Saint': Halo Effect

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 4, 1997

My first piece of advice about "The Saint," an action-romance starring Val Kilmer and Elisabeth Shue, is to shed all expectations. I had to. A long time ago -- before many of you were lawyers -- I used to watch "The Saint" when it was a British television series. (It also aired by popular demand in the United States.)

The 1960s show, based on the books by Leslie Charteris, was about Simon Templar (played by Roger Moore), a suave, modern-day Robin Hood in a white turtleneck sweater, who drove a classic Volvo P1800 and stole from all the right people for all the right reasons. Of course, he infuriated police authorities the world over for his tendency to operate outside the law.

As played by Moore, he was effortlessly stylish. And British audiences would wait for the Saintís telltale signals directed at the camera, a raised eyebrow, a wink (usually over the shoulder of his latest female conquest) and a superimposed halo above his head -- followed by the unforgettable, seven-note "Saint" theme.

Terrific stuff.

But that was then. The fact is, Moore may have been Charterisís favorite interpreter, but he did not enjoy exclusivity. The Saint was played by some 19 actors (American, British and even Australian) on screen, radio and television -- including George Sanders (in the movies) and Vincent Price (on radio). And when author Charteris moved to America, his Saint character became more Americanized anyway.

Kilmerís gentleman-rogue in "The Saint" is hardly cultural sabotage. And besides, Kilmer (who drives a red Volvo C70 Turbo Coupe throughout the movie and operates a mean Apple PowerBook 5300ce) infuses his part with such mischievous, comic vigor, he disarms you. The motto for this movie? Donít take it seriously. Templar (Kilmer) is a high-priced, freelance infiltrator currently employed by Ivan Tretiak (Rade Serbedzija), a ruthless Russian mobster who wants to use a new formula for cold fusion (a revolutionary process for generating energy) to transform Mother Russia (where a heating oil shortage has roiled the country), turn a tidy profit, and establish Ivan as a communistic tsar for life.

But Templar has to steal the formula from Dr. Emma Russell (Shue), a beautiful, eccentric scientist who stuffs her scribblings into her bra and who gets all giddy at the thought of serving mankind. Templar, a master of disguises, poses as a South African loverboy to seduce her.

It works only too well. Predictably, these guys fall in love, and Simon resets his moral compass. Ivan gets infuriated at the Saintís change of heart and dispatches his scar-faced, coke-crazed goons (whose facial gashes suggest they often walk through glass) to kidnap Emma, get her formula and kill Simon.

Director Phillip Noyce, who made "Dead Calm," "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger," keeps things moving at a kinetic, involving pace. And writers Jonathan Hensleigh (who wrote "Die Hard With a Vengeance") and Wesley Strick create a diverting human steeplechase. Stuck in Moscow, where a coup díetat looms large, Simon and Emma rush up and down stairs, dive through escape hatches, duck explosions, hide underwater and scurry through underground tunnels.

Noyce also keeps the cameras trained on Kilmer and Shue -- probably his smartest strategy of all. Kilmer was a scream as Doc Holliday in "Tombstone" and as Marlon Brandoís crazed sidekick in "The Island of Dr. Moreau." Heís hilarious here, whether heís playing an effete German intellectual, a seedy, professorial weirdo or that South African stud.

Shue, a rising actress, makes her glorified bimbo role sing to the rafters. Thereís no evidence that her character could even quote E=mc 2 , but sheís full of angelic impulse; sheís a powerfully naive force of good, and itís a credit to Shue that she makes the role work. What counts is the goofy chemistry between the two. If thereís a message to this movie, itís that love conquers all, whether youíre attacked by drug-crazed Russian droogies or semi-believable story twists.

THE SAINT (PG-13) ó Contains sex scenes, profanity and violence.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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