The curse of Phillip Noyce's career is a modest, little movie he directed called Newsfront (1978). In its day, that film fulfilled the cultured, middle class dream of what Australian cinema should be: stately, low key, socially relevant; rather British in its mood and, even better, anti-American in its sentiments.
Woe unto Noyce, then, when his career path took him to the dreaded USA, and to the helming of outlandish, garish, socially irresponsible entertainments such as Blind Fury (1989), Sliver (1993) and now The Saint. But perhaps it is time to put Newsfront well and truly into Noyce's closet, and consider him in a fine league of mid-level American directors that includes Rowdy Herrington, Renny Harlin and John Badham.
The Saint is something of a romp – a surprisingly camp movie in the context of today's often po-faced action spectaculars. Based on a well-known television series, it harks back even more to those light-hearted mystery-thrillers of the 1950s and '60s in which stars would wear a dizzying procession of masks and disguises – just for the heck of it.
Ninety per cent of the fun of this film resides in the joy of seeing Val Kilmer put on different faces, voices and mannerisms. Whether as a garrulous, drunken Russian or a Byronic pom swooning over art and poetry, Kilmer is a hoot. Fortunately, Noyce matches his star's camp shenanigans with a suitably exaggerated sense of romance and melodrama.
The plot collides dashing Simon Templar (Kilmer) with Emma (Elisabeth Shue), a nervy, dreamy scientist who stuffs top-secret formulae into her bra. Meanwhile, a resurgent, militaristic Russian state is gathering force, and many shady parties are rushing in to either cut deals or destroy the movement.
In a suitably crazy way, the love story of Simon and Emma stands for the typically modern relationship. She is the New Woman and he is the mystery man, the homme fatale – as he murmurs tragically, "nobody knows who I am, least of all myself". That the fate of mankind comes to depend on the state of their burgeoning union at any given moment will strike some viewers as ripe nonsense – but doesn't The English Patient (1996) peddle the same bill of goods, more stealthily and insidiously?
Noyce handles this fanciful material – particularly its rich panoply of new-technological gadgets – efficiently and colourfully. He is not yet in the class of Brian De Palma (Mission: Impossible ), but he is getting there. All the same, I am not ruling out the possibility that Noyce will suddenly pull a Francis Coppola-style stunt and announce that he is making a small, personal film next with all that filthy lucre he makes these days – Newsfront 2, perhaps.
© Adrian Martin April 1997