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Movie Reviews: 'The Saint' and 'Double Team'

Mane Events: Val Kilmer has a bad-hair day as the chameleon hero of ‘The Saint’, but Dennis Rodman gives bounce to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s ‘Double Team’.

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To create an Event Movie, two things are required: a headline-grabbing budget (current blockbuster etiquette dictates that it be at least $100 million) and a concept that’s popcorny enough to live up to it (anything involving the destruction of a major metropolitan area will do fine). Imagine, on the other hand, that you’re a studio executive who doesn’t want to commit quite that much money or conceptual spark. What’s called for is escapism of a slightly lower octane — something that looks and sounds like an Event Movie, has a few Event Movie flourishes, but lacks the transcendent hoopla and financial risk. A picture like, say, THE SAINT (Paramount, PG-13), a big, sprawling, kaleidoscopic mess of a spy thriller that would be indistinguishable from any other sprawling mess were it not for its ”classic” pedigree — i.e., its loose connection to the mid-’60s British television series starring Roger Moore as … well, as some vaguely James Bondish guy who drove a neat white car. Or, say, a movie like DOUBLE TEAM (Columbia, R), a Jean-Claude Van Damme thriller that would be indistinguishable from any other kicky-schlocky Van Damme thriller were it not for the presence of basketball superstar/professional media delinquent Dennis Rodman, whose shifting psychedelic hair color is the film’s most truly special effect. Welcome to the pseudo Event Movies of spring.

In The Saint, Val Kilmer romps through Moscow and London sporting a variety of disguises and personalities, each alter ego named after a different saint. In one scene, he’s a German hippie intellectual, a dandy who speaks with a teasing lisp. Minutes later, he’s a plug-ugly geek journalist with big teeth and a bad comb-over. Then he’s a suave lady-killer in Jim Morrison hair, then a schlumpfy maid, and so on.

Why, exactly, is Val dressing up like this? He plays Simon Templar, a renegade thief and master of disguise who rubs shoulders with hitmen, lawmen, and ministers of world power, none of whom have a clue as to who he really is. Neither, as it turns out, do we. The disorienting oddity of The Saint is that the film shifts gears nearly as often as its hero changes costume. The director, Phillip Noyce, fails to establish the remotest sense of time or place. We get only a vague notion of whom Templar is working for, why he’s pitted against a Russian autocrat (Rade Serbedzija), or what, exactly, Elisabeth Shue thinks she’s doing as Dr. Emma Russell, a ”brilliant” scientist who, when she isn’t delivering lectures on cold fusion that make her sound like a dippy grad student, is there to provide Templar with a little warm fusion. Noyce creates an ersatz Bond picture in which the plot, while simple in the abstract, remains completely abstract.

Kilmer, playing the man of a thousand Eurotrash faces, seems to have been inspired by the mad camp theatrics of late-period Marlon Brando, with whom he costarred in The Island of Dr. Moreau. The actor gets you chuckling at his flake-o skill, yet each time Templar shows up in a different guise, its only visible purpose is to indulge Val Kilmer’s desire to act like a waiter in the world’s toniest espresso bar. Top-heavy with ”whimsy,” so muddled it makes Mission: Impossible look like a model of narrative cohesion, The Saint is a glittering trash pile that, after a while, becomes a nearly unendurable disaster. It’s the apotheosis of the new incoherence, with the clichés of espionage and action thrillers — chases, escapes, break-ins — ripped out of context and jammed together like bumper cars. The film keeps telling us that Templar, with his parade of personas, is some sort of walking identity crisis. The truth is, he barely exists as a character. As The Saint unspools in its knowing yet arbitrary way, working up to what seems like nine different endings, you may start to wonder: Who, indeed, is Simon Templar? Who is Val Kilmer? What in the name of Hudson Hawk is going on in this movie?

Jean-Claude Van Damme will always be a B-picture star at heart, but in recent years his projects have taken on a deluxe studio sheen. He has been time warped and turned into twins (twice), and so it’s no surprise to see him go through a few low-grade Bond shenanigans of his own. In Double Team, he plays a counterterrorist who is erased by his own organization and placed in the Colony, a posh computerized think tank for spies too dangerous to roam the earth. The place looks like Alcatraz on the Riviera, and we’re meant to be wowed by the ominous sci-fi gadgetry of it all. But then it’s revealed what sort of movie Double Team really is: In the midst of all the ”intrigue,” the big rock & roll showpiece consists of … Jean-Claude rehabilitating himself by doing awesome leg splits in his room.

Double Team was directed by Tsui Hark, the third Hong Kong action auteur to be imported to Hollywood by Van Damme (after John Woo and Ringo Lam, who made Hard Target and Maximum Risk for him, respectively). While this all but guarantees that the film will be overpraised by film critics who are Hong Kong cultists, Hark’s jazzy frenetic style doesn’t really catch fire until the climax, when Van Damme, assisted by Rodman’s super-freak weapons dealer, dodges land mines, battles a tiger, and engages in a bout of ultimate fighting with an obscenely pumped-up Mickey Rourke, whose gray collapsing face has turned into an arresting icon of bad living. He’s Mr. Macho Death — part greaser, part Peter Cushing.

Double Team becomes an enjoyably decadent spectacle of gymnastic preposterousness. Jean-Claude is his usual stoic pretty-boy self, but despite his grimness, the movie has more sheer personality than any previous Van Damme outing. The personality comes almost entirely from Rourke and from Rodman, who, despite his looming frame, manages to buzz around the action like the lightest of sidekicks. He is, of course, spectacularly photogenic, with his earrings and nose rings, his phosphorescent hair, his badass ”craziness” offset by lips that pucker up as sweetly as a Valentine’s Day heart. In Double Team, though, Rodman’s most appealing virtue is that he doesn’t take anything, least of all himself, too seriously. That’s enough to make him the main Event. The Saint: F Double Team: B-