When Simon Templar (Val Kilmer) was a little boy, he was brought up in a Catholic orphanage, but he was a rebel who refused to buckle under the strict rules the priests and nuns arranged for the children. One thing that was drummed into him were the names of the saints, and he never forgot those nor their stories; another thing he never forgot was that one night after he and his fellow orphans were punished, he almost escaped, and wanted to steal a kiss from his favourite girl before he went, but the priests caused an accident and she fell to her death. This has haunted him into adulthood, where he is now a millionaire thanks to his way with taking on jobs as one of the best thieves for hire in the business...
The Saint was of course the Leslie Charteris character who was created by the author in the nineteen-twenties and became the hero of countless books and television episodes, as well as a number of big screen adaptations from the thirties to the fifties. George Sanders was the highest profile actor to take the role there, but it was Roger Moore who would be most associated with the adventurer thanks to umpteen television instalments in the sixties, which rarely left the studio but did make great use of back projected exotic locations to place him all over the globe. Moore had been trying to get a big screen comeback for the character off the ground since the eighties, once the Ian Ogilvy version of the seventies had run its course.
He failed, but The Saint did return in the form of Kilmer, and promptly failed to set the box office alight with well-founded rumours of much behind the scenes meddling with director (and long time fan of Charteris) Phillip Noyce's vision. Essentially, this had taken a far more romantic view of the story, so Templar fell in love, but then he would see that potential happiness torn from his grasp to make him the man he was, a more resonant echo of the prologue. However, once the movie was completed to Noyce's satisfaction, the producers didn't like what the test audiences were telling them, and the entire last act was reshot, which effectively was a waste of millions because the film flopped at the box office anyway.
What was the problem in this era when classic characters were getting reimagined hither and yon, and the public were apparently welcoming this trend? One issue was that while the sixties series was set around the world if not filmed there, this actually did visit Moscow to shoot scenes there at a time when doing so in Red Square and so on was notable news. What it was not was particularly captivating to watch, lending a dour appearance to what was patently emulating the James Bond series, as if they would have been better making a John Le Carré adaptation than an action adventure with a dash of romance. The snow fell, the Russians chuntered, and Templar got stuck in a sewer: not as compelling as what the Bond franchise was carrying off at the same time, not by some margin.
But the biggest liability was Kilmer himself, in one of the most narcissistic performances of his career; he had ditched Batman & Robin to star in this, not such a bad move, but watching him now it appeared as if Ben Stiller had learned a lot from Kilmer here in creating Zoolander as pouting Val demonstrated his Blue Steel at every opportunity, to the point of distraction. You couldn't imagine this Templar would ever be a master of disguise since every one of his looks closely resembled a certain Mr V. Kilmer, and his array of silly accents was not doing him any favours either. The purists who loved the books complained of a missed opportunity, for this was more a hero who happened to be called The Saint than faithful to the source (this incarnation was strictly a non-killer), and the addition of that nineties cause celebre, cold fusion, was a poor fit, notably when we had to believe wide-eyed scientist Elisabeth Shue had cracked it all by herself and not a mention of red mercury to be heard. Another thriller that missed the Cold War but was at a loss what to do about it, you could see why it didn't catch on at the time. Music by Graeme Revell (Orbital offered their version of the famous theme).