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Revisiting ‘The Saint’ 20 Years Later

Making sense of the 1997 Val Kilmer film, and the very strange career that came after it

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

You can divide the actor Val Kilmer’s career into two periods: before The Saint and after The Saint. Following the release of Phillip Noyce’s 1997 caper, Kilmer’s career faltered. Twenty years after the fact, I’m curious: Why did The Saint damn Kilmer?

I’m not asking this question out of malice. I love Val Kilmer. I love his Twitter account, and how much he loves Mark Twain. I love his large, shiny teeth, and how he holds his mouth in a slightly dopey open snarl.

Kilmer shone during my early childhood, when he starred in flashy, well-received roles like Jim Morrison in 1991’s The Doors and Doc Holliday in 1993’s Tombstone. A Juilliard-trained acting prodigy, he was considered a temperamental leading-man genius during that time period. (In 1996, EW called him "Mr. Unpopularity" while noting that he commanded $6 million a picture.)

Before The Saint, Kilmer had a string of hits, including Heat and The Ghost and the Darkness. After The Saint, Kilmer’s next role was the voice of God in the animated drama The Prince of Egypt, and after that he played a blind guy in the weepie At First Sight. In one particularly grim comeback attempt, he voiced the car in a short-lived remake of Knight Rider. Yes, he was in Pollock, and Pollock bangs — but he was de Kooning, the Val Kilmer of New York School painters. He moved from Batman to bit player in a matter of years.

In 2017, Kilmer is a moderately respected character actor who has guest-starred on Psych and Numb3rs. He did recently snag a small role in Terrence Malick’s Song to Song, and my colleague Lindsay Zoladz has assured me that Kilmer shines in the film. However, it’s a bit part in a divisive indie film. It’s not where Kilmer was supposed to be, and The Saint is the film that threw him off course.

"I don’t have any regrets, but there are two to three jobs, that if you do those action movies, you’re secured as a certain global stature. It’s an adage, but it’s kind of true: Once you’re a star, you’re always a star; it’s just what level? And I was in some big, wonderful movies and enjoyed a lot of success, but I didn’t sort of secure that position," Kilmer told the The Hollywood Reporter in 2012, as he reflected on his unusual career trajectory. He knows.

Prior to his role as international thief Simon Templar in The Saint, Kilmer starred with Marlon Brando in the troubled sci-fi epic The Island of Dr. Moreau. Kilmer was cast in the film after Bruce Willis dropped out, and shortly thereafter Brando’s daughter died, which sent the Godfather actor into a tailspin. Brando’s onset behavior was erratic, but Kilmer was no less disruptive, and had no extenuating tragedy to blame. "On the rare occasions any filming took place, Kilmer was rude and abrasive: during one scene, he reportedly sat on the ground and refused to stand up," the film’s original director Richard Stanley told The Telegraph. (Stanley was replaced during film production.) "I don’t like Val Kilmer, I don’t like his work ethic, and I don’t want to be associated with him ever again," Stanley’s replacement John Frankenheimer told Entertainment Weekly in 1996.

Dr. Moreau was a notorious bomb with a troubled production, and it might seem like the obvious turning point in Kilmer’s career. But Kilmer is good in the film, and he would get more chances to correct his career trajectory; he still had commercial credit from the box-office success of Batman Forever, and critics admired his work. Male movie stars in the 1990s could often atone for reputation hiccups with a few rueful, PR-savvy apologies. Hugh Grant stammered for a few minutes on Leno in 1995 and was forgiven for hiring a sex worker while he dated Liz Hurley. Kilmer, who merely had a rap for surliness and no full-blown scandals, was a lukewarm bad boy well within Hollywood’s moral boundaries.

And he was rewarded as such. The Saint was a big-budget, James Bond–style role setting Kilmer up for a franchise. Based on a mystery book series by Leslie Charteris, the story had been made into films during the 1930s and ’40s, as well as into a British television series starring pre-Bond Roger Moore, so it had some built-in name recognition and plenty of sexy ’90s hooks. (Kilmer plays a suave international art thief, but one who knows how to use the internet.) Elisabeth Shue costars as an electrochemist named Dr. Emma Russell (sure), who is an easily seducible genius nuclear scientist who says things like, "Who are you … really?" Kilmer is Simon Templar, a shadowy man who was raised in a Catholic orphanage. He doesn’t have a family, but he has a remarkable number of disguises, from a leather-pants-clad South African lothario to a homely maid. His business is thievery and his emotions are stunted.

(Paramount Pictures)
(Paramount Pictures)

After Templar steals a microchip from a Russian oligarch, the same oligarch tasks him with stealing the formula for cold fusion from Russell. Templar pretends to be a sexy artist named Thomas More, has a one-night stand with Russell, and steals her top-secret formula, which she writes down in little notes she keeps scattered around her apartment and in her bra. He feels bad about robbing her, though, and ends up in Moscow on the run with her from the same evil Soviet billionaires who hired him. They steal the formula back, there are showdowns and explosions, and none of it makes much sense. One wonders how exactly he manages to lug around such a sizable repertoire of costumes as a man constantly on the run, including what appear to be a bald wig and prosthetic teeth during his turn as a weird old science man.

It was supposed to be the Bourne franchise before the Bourne franchise. That never happened. The Saint opened second at the box office and received mixed reviews, but nothing vicious enough to give it notoriety as a stinker. Kilmer discussed the possibility of starring in and producing a sequel with the Chicago Tribune in 1997.

So why did it torpedo Kilmer’s career?

For starters, Kilmer’s acting in the film is more of an amalgamation of pouts, struts, awful accents, and even worse disguises than anything resembling human emotion. He commits with gusto, but the scenarios and his costumes are so improbable that the effect is ridiculous. His character is meant to be a chameleon, but he always looks like Val Kilmer in a goofy getup, and instead of acknowledging this, Kilmer plays it straight. He seduces and robs Elisabeth Shue’s character and is meant to genuinely fall in love with her along the way, but there’s never a moment where his character drops his facade — it’s increasingly ridiculous masks all the way down. I’m not surprised he was nominated for a Golden Raspberry for Worst Actor for this movie. His performance is the worst thing about a bad movie, which is why it vaporized his leading-man cred.

As I rewatched The Saint recently, I thought about the movie Tropic Thunder. One of the most popular theories about Kilmer’s middling career is that he was hurt by his personality, which is not attuned to Hollywood schmoozing. In fact, that’s Kilmer’s own theory. "I never cultivated a personality," he told Esquire in 2005. He is a devout Christian Scientist who for many years lived on a ranch in New Mexico; he estranged directors, he got divorced, he gained weight. But this theory makes little sense to me. His Top Gun costar and fellow large-toothed ’90s leading man Tom Cruise is also an ardent adherent to a religious group many people do not understand or approve of. He is also a divorced perfectionist, and his string of scandals is far more high-profile and bizarre than Kilmer’s.

When Cruise’s reputation for being a temperamental maniac did start finally hurting his bankability, he took a hammy, out-of-character comic role in Tropic Thunder, one which required looking the silliest and ugliest he’d ever looked. It was a way to show he could laugh at himself, and it worked. Kilmer’s work in The Saint showed him looking the silliest and ugliest he’d ever looked, but the tone of the film and performance was all wrong. Instead of leaning into the corniness, The Saint takes itself seriously. Its tone is at such gulfing odds with the scenery-chewing acting and its outlandish plotline that it doesn’t appear to be in on the joke so much as it appears to simply be a joke.

‘’I like the character of the Saint so much better [than Batman],’’ Kilmer told the Orlando Sentinel. ‘’I mean, really, in that Batsuit, it wasn’t so much about acting except with your nostrils." Unfortunately, Kilmer couldn’t go back to the Batman franchise, and his post-Saint choices were equally questionable. At First Sight, based on the writing of renowned neuroscientist Oliver Sacks, had potential, but ended up a treacly mess. He tried another sci-fi starring role with Red Planet and once again solidified his reputation for difficulty. According to costar Tom Sizemore, the two physically fought on set. Kilmer’s action flicks mostly got cornier from there, with turns in Oliver Stone’s 2004 historical drama flop Alexander and Arctic horror film The Thaw.

This is not to say Kilmer’s post–The Saint career is all bad. While Hollywood lost a movie star, his work in the early 2000s in particular is an erratic but often brilliant study of how a celebrity reshapes himself into a character actor. He’s acerbic and perfect in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and sordidly compelling in Wonderland and, you know what? He was funny in MacGruber. He has a sideline as a painter and was able to turn his obsession with Mark Twain’s spirituality into a one-man show called Citizen Twain. Maybe he’ll never be able to explain why he appeared as himself in The Love Guru, but the man seems to be living his authentic best life and taking himself less seriously.

There’s a reboot of The Saint in the works at Paramount, according to a 2016 Variety story. Perhaps it will finally become the franchise it could’ve been. But Kilmer’s career will never be the same.

An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that Val Kilmer acted in Ghost Rider. He was in the TV show Knight Rider.