It is loosely based on the character of Simon Templar created by Leslie Charteris in 1928 for a series of books published as "The Saint", which ran until 1983. The Saint character has also featured in a series of Hollywood movies made between 1938 and 1954, a 1940s radio series starring Vincent Price (and others) as Templar, a popular British television series of the 1960s which starred Roger Moore, and a 1970s series starring Ian Ogilvy.
At the Saint Ignatius Orphanage, a rebellious boy named John Rossi refers to himself as "Simon Templar" and leads a group of fellow orphans as they attempt to run away to escape their harsh treatment. Just as Simon is caught by the head priest, he witnesses the tragic death of a girl he had taken a liking to when she accidentally falls from a balcony.
As an adult, Simon (Val Kilmer)—now a professional thief dubbed "The Saint" for using the names of Catholic saints as aliases—steals a valuable microchip belonging to a Russian oil company. Simon stages the burglary during a political rally held for the company's owner, Ivan Tretiak (Rade Šerbedžija). Tretiak is a former Communist party boss and a billionaire oil and gas oligarch who is rallying support against the Russian President. Simon is caught in the act by Tretiak's son Ilya (Valery Nikolaev) but escapes with the microchip. After learning of the heist, Tretiak contacts Simon and hires him to steal a revolutionary cold fusion formula discovered by American electrochemist Emma Russell (Elisabeth Shue). He wishes to acquire Emma's formula—which creates clean, inexpensive energy—so he can monopolize the energy market during a severe oil shortage in Russia.
Using the alias "Thomas More", Simon poses as a South African traveller and steals the formula after having a one night stand with Emma. Tretiak learns Emma's formula is incomplete and orders his henchmen, led by Ilya, to kill Simon and kidnap Emma in order to obtain the remaining information. Heartbroken, Emma reports the theft to Inspector Teal (Alun Armstrong) and Inspector Rabineau (Charlotte Cornwell) of Scotland Yard, who inform her Simon is a wanted international thief. Emma tracks down Simon to a hotel in Moscow and confronts him about the theft and his betrayal. The Russian police, loyal to Tretiak, arrest Simon and Emma. However, they manage to escape from the police van as they are being brought to Tretiak's mansion.
As they flee through the suburbs, Simon and Emma are helped by a prostitute and her family who shelter them in a hidden room in their home. Later, they meet "Frankie" (Irina Apeksimova), a fence who sells them the directions through an underground sewer system that lead to the American embassy. Simon and Emma exit the sewer tunnel only to find Ilya and his men waiting for them among a gathering of protestors outside the embassy's front gates. Emma safely makes it to the embassy for political asylum, while Simon allows himself to be caught by Ilya as a distraction. He escapes after rigging a car bomb that severely burns Ilya.
Simon plants a listening device in Tretiak's office and learns he plans to perform a coup d'état by selling the cold fusion formula to Russian President Karpov to frame him for wasting billions on useless technology. Tretiak then plans to use the political fallout to install himself as President. Emma finishes the equations to complete the formula, and Simon delivers the information to Tretiak's physicist, Dr. Lev Botkin (Henry Goodman), who builds an apparatus which proves the formula works. Simon infiltrates the President's Kremlin residence and informs him of Tretiak's conspiracy just before Tretiak loyalists detain him. In front of a massive gathering in Red Square, Tretiak makes public accusations against President Karpov, but when the cold fusion reactor is successfully initiated, Tretiak is exposed as a fraud and arrested. He is also revealed to have caused the heating oil shortage in Moscow by illegally stockpiling vast amounts of heating oil underneath his mansion.
Sometime later, at a news conference at the University of Oxford, Emma presents her cold fusion formula to the world. Simon attends the conference in disguise and once again avoids being captured by Inspectors Teal and Rabineau when they spot him in the crowd. As he drives away, he listens to a news radio broadcast (voiced by Roger Moore) reporting that $3 billion was recently donated to the Red Cross, Salvation Army and the United Nations Children's Fund. It is implied that Simon, who had access to Tretiak's accounts, donated the money anonymously. Furthermore, a non-profit foundation led by Dr. Botkin is being established to develop the cold fusion technology.Val Kilmer as Simon Templar
Elisabeth Shue as Dr. Emma Russell
Rade Šerbedžija as Ivan Petrovich Tretiak
Valery Nikolaev as Ilya Tretiak
Henry Goodman as Dr. Lev Naumovich Botkin
Alun Armstrong as Inspector Teal
Michael Byrne as Vereshagin
Yevgeni Lazarev as President Karpov
Irina Apeksimova as Aleksa "Frankie" Frankeyevich
Lev Prygunov as General Leo Sklarov
Charlotte Cornwell as Inspector Rabineau
Tommy Flanagan as Scarface
Egor Pazenko as Scratchface
Adam Smith as Young Simon Templar
Roger Moore as Radio Announcer Voice
David Schneider as Bar Waiter
William Hope as State Department Official
Film adaptations of Leslie Charteris' anti-hero Simon Templar (The Saint) date back to the late 1930s when RKO Radio Pictures launched a popular series of B-movies with a succession of different actors playing the lead role. After that, save for two unsuccessful French attempts at launching new film series, the character was confined to television: The Saint, a 1960s series starring Roger Moore; Return of the Saint, a 1970s updating starring Ian Ogilvy; a failed 1987 pilot for American TV, The Saint in Manhattan starring Andrew Clarke; and a set of feature-length made-for-television adventures produced in Australia in 1989 starring Simon Dutton. Of these, the Moore series remained the definitive television adaptation.
In the mid-1980s, tabloid gossip newspapers such as the National Enquirer reported that Moore was planning to produce a new Saint movie, with Pierce Brosnan (then known for playing the Templar-influenced character Remington Steele on TV) being considered for the role, though nothing came of this project.
The reference work The Saint: A Complete History by Burl Barer (McFarland 1992) was written at a time when another set of plans were under way to launch a new Saint film series, which would have been faithful to the original writings of Leslie Charteris and feature characters from the original books. This project also failed.
A few years later, Paramount Pictures' attempt to make a film of The Saint started with the powerhouse above-the-line team of Robert Evans as producer, Steven Zaillian as writer and Sydney Pollack as director. Ralph Fiennes—hot from Schindler's List and Quiz Show—was offered $1 million for the lead, but eventually passed. In a 1994 interview for Premiere magazine, Fiennes said the screenplay—racing fast cars, breaking into Swiss banks—was nothing he hadn't seen before.
Robert Evans left the project—although, contractually, his name remains on the final film's credits—and David Brown (Jaws, Driving Miss Daisy) took over. A new story was commissioned from Jonathan Hensleigh (Die Hard with a Vengeance), which cast Simon Templar as a mercenary hired by a billionaire Russian oil and gas tycoon to steal the secret of cold fusion from an eccentric but beautiful American scientist. The story would take place in Washington, D.C., Upstate New York, St. Petersburg, and Moscow. Setpieces included Dr. Russell skydiving while strapped into a wheelchair and a plane landing in Red Square. Darwin Mayflower described it as one of the top unproduced screenplays. Phillip Noyce was hired to direct.
Providing a link to both the 1960s The Saint TV series and the later Return of the Saint revival of the 1970s, Robert S. Baker, the producer of both series, was brought in an executive producer of the film.
In a 1997 interview with Des O'Connor for his ITV show, Hugh Grant says he passed on the role after a meeting with Noyce because he didn't like the director's approach to the character. Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kevin Costner, and Johnny Depp all refused the role. Val Kilmer was cast after rejecting to reprise the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne in Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin and the script was rewritten by Wesley Strick to suit his style.
Strick's rewrite relocated the action to London and Oxford and merged two villains together by having Tretiak running for president himself rather than endorsing a puppet candidate. Kilmer was constantly pressing for more disguises in the film, although Paramount wanted to keep that idea for their Mission: Impossible franchise. The Saint, as devised by Charteris in the 1930s, used crude disguises instead of the sophisticated ones shown in this film.
Unusually for an action star of the time (as in heroes played by Seagal, Willis or Mel Gibson), this Saint refrained from killing and even the main villains live to stand trial. Charteris' version had no qualms about taking another life.
In the original version of the film—as in the original Jonathan Hensleigh script—Emma, having escaped Russia via the American embassy, collapses while giving a lecture and dies in Simon Templar's arms. Watching the videotape back, he sees Ilya Tretiak stabbing her in the leg with the tip of his cane. The final half-hour has Simon returning to Moscow to destroy the villains' plans and avenge her death. With Dr. Botvin's help, he switches the formulas around and humiliates Ivan Tretiak during his show trial of the Russian president. The Tretiaks shoot their way out of the crowd and escape back to their mansion, with Simon and the Russian army in pursuit. Ivan shoots the treacherous Dr. Botvin. Simon arrives and finds the bodies of Botvin and Ivan Tretiak, killed by his own son. Simon battles Ilya on the stairwell as Russian tanks pound the mansion walls, exposing and setting fire to the vast stockpile of heating oil in the basement. With the stairwell disintegrating around them, the fight spills out on to the chandelier, suspended above the blazing oil. Simon teases Ilya with the disc containing the formula for cold fusion. As he reaches out for it, Simon cuts the rope and Ilya plummets to a fiery death. Returning to Emma's home, Simon finds a letter from her, a tear fills his eye and he vows from now on to use his skills only for good.
The novelization features an alternate version in which Emma lives and Simon and Ilya still battle on the chandelier. In the end the producers decided to cut Emma's death scene, chopped off the action-packed climax, inserted footage of the Tretiaks being arrested and filmed a new epilogue at Oxford. (Footage from the original ending features prominently in the film's trailer.)
Test audiences were equally enthusiastic about both endings, and producer Mace Neufeld and Noyce weren't sure about which ending to use. In the end, the ending chosen was the one used in the current version of the film, as they felt it was close to the original Saint stories that came before.
The film featured the Volvo C70, a nod to the Volvo P1800 of the original series.
Fort Amherst starred as a filming location for The Saint in 1997. The tunnels were used for the scene in which Simon receives a map in the Kremlin tunnel in Moscow.
A novelization based upon the film script was written by Burl Barer.
The Saint won the 1998 BMI Film Music Award.
The songs "Out of My Mind" by Duran Duran and "6 Underground" by the Sneaker Pimps were played during the credits, and released as singles to promote the movie.
The film's soundtrack album, The Saint: Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack included many songs from the electronica age. Aside from Duran Duran and the Sneaker Pimps, recording artists included Orbital, Moby, Fluke, Luscious Jackson, The Chemical Brothers, Underworld, Daft Punk, David Bowie, Dreadzone, Duncan Sheik, Everything but the Girl and the theme "Polaroid Millenium" by British musician Su Goodacre (alias "Superior") which also played during the final credits.
The Saint was the #2 film for its opening weekend, earning $16,278,873 at 2,307 theaters in the United States. With a domestic gross of $61,363,304, it ranked 28th of 303 movies for 1997 Internationally the film earned $108 million, with a worldwide total of $169.4 million (equivalent to $245.3 million in 2012 dollars).
Critical response for the film was mixed to negative, with a Metascore of 50/100, based on 22 professional film critic reviews provided by Metacritic. It has a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 45 reviews with the consensus stating: "The Saint is watchable thanks to Val Kilmer and Elisabeth Shue, but the film's muddled screenplay stretches credulity."
Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle notes Kilmer is the "master of disguises", as "Templar's genius, like Kilmer's, involves slipping in and out of skins rapidly and offering only the slightest hint at the person who hides beneath the charade...Kilmer dons 12 disguises in all, polishes them with impeccable accents and pliable postures", with Shue's character offering "the same sympathetic dignity she brought to Leaving Las Vegas". Liam Lacey of The Toronto Globe and Mail said The Saint is "More entertaining than Mission Impossible or the last Bond film GoldenEye. It brings back the humour and sangfroid that makes the genre work." Todd McCarthy of Variety called it a "suspenser that doesn't taste bad at first bite but becomes increasingly hard to swallow".
Val Kilmer earned a Golden Raspberry Award nomination for Worst Actor for his performance in the film, but lost to Kevin Costner for The Postman.