" How are things in Moscow?”
“Very good. The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians. "
— Felix Bressart & Greta Garbo, Ninotchka

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Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace

Does the original trilogy justice in terms of heart, action, and fun —Marty Mapes (review...)

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There are very few reasons to see The Saint.

One is that it has Val Kilmer. Another is that it has Elisabeth Shue. Another is that not much else opened this week that’s likely to be any better, judging from current reviews.

Beyond that, The Saint is boring and too long (at under 2 hours). There is very little in The Saint that’s original or fresh. Here’s the plot:

Simon Templar (Val Kilmer) is a thief and a master of disguise. He is hired by evil Russians to steal the secret formula from the beautiful young scientist, Emma Russell (Elisabeth Shue). Simon seduces beautiful Emma and has the secret formula in his hands when he realizes that he has fallen in love. He tells the evil Russians to buzz off — he has found a better offer.

The evil Russians, being evil Russians, demand the secret formula for double the price, or the girl gets it. Simon Templar steals the secret formula from beautiful Emma and sells it to the evil Russians — for her own protection. But beautiful Emma, not realizing the danger she is putting herself and her new love in, tracks the elusive Simon Templar into the lion’s den and they both end up in the iron fist of the evil Russians, who are not satisfied with the lovely Emma’s secret formula.

The pair of young lovers manage to escape. Luckily, the beautiful Emma has not finished the final calculations on her secret formula (she’s 2 hours away from finishing it), so Tretiak (Valery Nikolaev), leader of the evil Russians, in the line that defines the entire movie, proclaims “Kill him and bring her back . . . alive!” The young lovers, inseparable, are chased through the rivers, slums, and sewers of Moscow, hounded by the minions of the evil Tretiak.

And so on.

Initially, I would say this movie is bad because it is formulaic and clichéd. However, I have defended admittedly formulaic movies (Dante’s Peak). Sometimes, I said, the formula works. In The Saint, the formula fails.

Formula Device 1: The Damsel in Distress. The Saint is condescending to the lead female character Emma. She is treated as bait by the Russians (do as we say or the girl gets it); she fouls things up for both her and Simon when she tracks him to Russia; she is portrayed as an airheaded ditz at the press conference early in the film (in spite of her being an alleged expert in her field); the hero calls her very “domestic;” and finally, the hero valiantly sacrifices his safety for hers at the end.

In light of all this, her being a brilliant scientist is a mere token gesture by the screenwriters (Jonathan Hensleigh and Wesley Strick).

This device worked well when it was turned on its head in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Marion (Karen Allen) is the damsel in distress, but she is strong. She is not a helpless screaming sex object.

Formula Device 2: Bad Guys Divulging their Plan. The evil Russians are sitting around having a casual conversation while, unbeknownst to them, Simon is listening in. In the course of their casual discussion, one of them mentions how funny it is that nobody knows where they were secretly hiding the stash. They all have a good laugh.

This device works well in most of the James Bond movies, partly because the movies are presented tongue-in-cheek (not so The Saint), and partly because the Bond movies popularized, if not invented, this device (The Saint has no such tradition). Also, the Bond villains viewed Bond as an equal of sorts. They viewed him as a worthy opponent who could appreciate their diabolical strategies. In The Saint, the device is uninspired and transparent.

Formula Device 3: TV Report Summaries. This formula device has gotten lots of exposure from the weekly humor newspaper, The Onion. Basically, the movie shows TV reports (or, in a corollary, reporters on the scene) to summarize what’s happening, in case you haven’t been paying attention to the plot. The Saint is particularly guilty of this condescending device.

I can’t think where this formula worked well, but there are many fine adventure movies that were better for not having to explain themselves. If you missed the all the subtleties of the plot the first time around, a second viewing was a pleasure (Topkapi, Mission: Impossible, the entire Indiana Jones trilogy, the James Bond series . . .).

Formula Device 4: Luck. When the author writes him/herself into a corner, a stroke of luck will save the hero. There is a scene in which Simon is doomed. He is unarmed and an evil Russian is pointing a gun at his head. Luckily, a cop just happens to come by and tells the villain to freeze, allowing Simon to escape.

This device doesn’t work well. What works better is having a scene of apparent luck that is attributable to a virtue of the hero. In other words, the cop shows up because the hero foresaw the trouble and called the police in advance, or the cop shows up because the hero is always helping the cop, and this is an act of reciprocity (though even this is becoming a formula device).

It is lazy and unfair to criticize a movie solely for being formulaic. Let me criticize The Saint then, not because it follows a formula, but because it is an unimaginative and half-hearted attempt at storytelling.

It does not borrow from, build on, or wink at formula, instead it uses formula as the cheapest, easiest solution to the movie’s potentially interesting conflict.