The movies and religion share at least one quality; each asks of us a willing suspension of disbelief. In religion, we've been asked to believe that the Red Sea parted at the raising of a hand, that a Mexican peasant picked roses in winter, that angels walked into a blazing furnace to hold counsel with a holy man whom the fire didn't burn.
The movies require something a little less transcendent, only that for something around two hours we believe in a fictional world, that we're caught up in someone else's fantasy enough that we're moved by invented events happening to people someone made up.
It seems appropriate to bring this up here because Phillip Noyce's latest film, The Saint, connects, in a way, the two worlds, the spiritual and celluloid, in that it draws fairly heavily on Catholic myth and legend, what with its talk of miracles and its protagonist changing identities a dozen times in the film, and giving each identity the name of a Roman Catholic saint.
Unfortunately, all of its invocation of miracles and saints' names were no match for the movie's most grievous sin, a mediocre script that stretched our willing suspension of disbelief to the breaking point, and The Saint becomes another in what is becoming an increasingly long list of films about which we have to ask, with all the millions the producers spent for special effects, for location shoots, and star power, why couldn't they have spent a bit more time on the script to iron out some glaringly silly flaws?
Based loosely on a series of more than 50 novels and a large number of short stories that Leslie Charteris wrote beginning in 1928, The Saint centers on Simon Templar (Val Kilmer), a master thief who's out to boost his Swiss bank account over the $50 million level, at which time he'll retire. As the film opens, he's stealing a prototype of a microchip from the mansion of Ivan Tretiak (Rade Serbedzija), head of a very dangerous Russian crime syndicate. In the middle of his theft, he's caught by Tretiak's sadistic son, Ilya (Valery Nikolaev), but escapes, humiliating Ilya, who has a lot to prove to papa.
Rather than kill Templar, however, Tretiak hires him to steal a formula for a cold fusion process of generating unlimited energy that's been developed by a young American scientist, Dr. Emma Russell (Elisabeth Shue). Russia, it seems, is in the midst of one of its worst winters, and there's no heating oil anywhere in Moscow, so the capital is on the verge of a revolution. Tretiak wants to use the cold fusion process to turn himself into a hero for his people so that he can embarrass the president and take over the country.
Along the way, however, Templar finds himself smitten with Russell and tries to quit on Tretiak, who then threatens that he'll kill Russell if Templar doesn't carry out the job.
It's formula stuff, really, a movie we've seen a million times over: To a certain extent, it's Sneakers, it's Eraser, it's True Lies, it's two dozen James Bond flicks--only you'd think Hollywood would've worked out the wrinkles by now through so much repetition, but the script is so careless that it might seem the writers had never seen any of the earlier films, except that they'd written some of them . (Between them, screenwriters Jonathan Hensleigh and Wesley Strick wrote The Rock, Die Hard with a Vengeance and the Martin Scorsese remake of Cape Fear, among other films.)
How bad are the flaws in the script?
First, let's look at this cold fusion idea: When we meet Russell, she's addressing a meeting of high-powered physicists at Oxford University, explaining her theory of cold fusion. One of the scientists challenges her, saying that her experiment has never worked. She responds, "I feel it's possible. When Einstein first had the idea for relativity, he couldn't prove it immediately, but he felt certain he was right." Remarks like that wouldn't get you a passing grade in fifth grade science, much less the adulation of Europe's most brilliant minds; it would in fact, make you a laughing stock, and a gangster shrewd enough to come to the brink of taking over Russia would not be offering $4 million to a master thief to steal any formula from you. Later, it even turns out that, shucks, Russell hasn't actually worked out the formula. She has pieces of it scrawled on some note cards that she keeps folded and stashed in her bra; she explains to Templar that she has all the elements figured out, she just can't figure out the order for those elements. It seems that's a pretty important part of any formula, the order of the pieces of the equation. It's like saying you've got basic addition licked when all you've got is 2,4,2+--yeah, the pieces are there, you just don't know the order. (Then there's the little problem that scientists are fairly protective of their work; they're not going to announce at a major gathering that they've almost got a problem worked out, because someone might steal their work--and their Nobel--out from under them.)
Later, after Tretiak determines that the formula doesn't work, he calls a meeting with the president he's trying to depose. You've got a problem on your hands, he tells the prez the Russian people are about to overthrow your government because they don't have any heat. But I have this formula here that will give you miraculous heat and save your administration. Fifteen minutes or so later, and with no testing, the president has given Tretiak (a man, I remind you, the president knows is trying to depose him) $10 billion for the worthless formula. (We won't go into the fact that, if the prez really had $10 bill lying around, and was willing to spend it to give the Russian people heat and therefore save his government, he could buy heating oil or coal.)
Later on, when Tretiak is on the verge of putting his plot into motion, demonstrators on the verge of riot stand outside the presidential palace, demanding the president do something for them. Templar breaks into the palace and, in a hale of gun fire, makes a dash for the president's private quarters. Pursued by guards, he bursts into the room, and exclaims, "Wait, trust me, I'm your friend. In a few minutes, Tretiak will have you arrested and put you on trial before the mob. Whatever he accuses you of, admit to it." The president--a man fearing for his offfice, if not his life-does not have Templar arrested or shot. He says, okay, sure, why not?
Maybe, in the end, all the Catholic allusions and the invoking of saints' names is appropriate for this film, because the only hope it has is if the filmmakers' prayers for a gullible, unintelligent audience are answered. Actually, it might be better if they asked forgiveness, and we gave them absolution, and the admonition, Go, My Sons, and Make Movies No More.
by Joe Schuster
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