An actor’s early films are like photos in a high school yearbook, capturing the potential that we know will come to blossom, flame out, or mutate in unexpected ways. Who would have guessed that head cheerleader Michelle Pfeiffer would now be an acclaimed thespian? That back-row goofball George Clooney would break hearts with cool capability? That scrawny geek Nic Cage would pump up into an action hero?

And then you have someone like Val Kilmer, who once looked Most Likely to Succeed but whose eccentric charisma is now repressed or baroque by turns. Twelve years ago, at the time of 1985’s Real Genius, it seemed like the actor knew where he was going. The earlier Top Secret! had cast him as an ingratiatingly Elvoid found object, but Genius showed him giving a real performance — and in a wifty teen comedy at that. As an older, wiser, and ruder student at an institute for young brainiacs, Kilmer makes being an antisocial intellectual seem both sexy and sympathetic; as a performer, he gives off a balletic comic wisdom that’s a joy to behold.

But Kilmer clearly wanted to be taken as a Serious Artiste, and as Jim Morrison in 1991’s The Doors, he fell headfirst into the pits of pretension: Even if recognizable human qualities could have snuck through Oliver Stone’s patented bombast, the actor showed no interest in pursuing them.

Kilmer sprang gracefully back to life, though, as a witty, dangerous Doc Holliday in 1993’s Tombstone, stealing the movie right out from under Kurt Russell in the process. He then turned around and gave a beautifully tempered, breathlessly still title performance in 1995’s Batman Forever. Seriously, go back and watch it now that the hype has died down: Kilmer has the majesty Michael Keaton lacked and the gravity George Clooney didn’t want.

At the same time, the actor’s reputation as an insufferable on-set egomaniac was getting a full-court press. Regardless of how true the stories are, you kind of wish that that demented intensity found its way onto celluloid more often. Or, when it does, that the film were less of a fiasco than 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which Kilmer at least turns in an extended impression of costar Marlon Brando that’s creepily spot-on.

No, the Val Kilmer we may have to live with is the one in the recent African adventure The Ghost and the Darkness: a thoughtful, impressive performance that never catches fire and is not meant to. And the new-to-tape espionage thriller The Saint clearly shows Kilmer standing at the crossroads of persona. ”Who are you?” asks the cold-fusion scientist/love interest played by Elisabeth Shue. ”No one has a clue. Least of all me,” replies the master of disguises. At this point, it could stand as the actor’s motto.

The title character of The Saint, a suave international thief, originated from the pen of novelist Leslie Charteris; he has been portrayed on screen and TV by such blithe cads as George Sanders and Roger Moore (you can see their work in the videos that have been reissued to take advantage of the new movie’s high profile). Unlike his predecessors, though, Kilmer makes the mistake of playing Simon Templar seriously — except for two scenes where he’s disguised as a ringer for character actor Austin Pendleton — and the script backs him up by insisting on Templar’s tormented childhood in an orphanage (a plot point notably absent from Charteris’ books).

All in all, The Saint plays as a James Bond movie stripped of its pop smarts — which is to say its reason for being. Fold in a deeply embarrassing turn by Shue as a brilliant scientist who keeps cold-fusion notes stuffed in her bra and an uncompelling plot about a would-be Russian dictator (Rade Serbedzija), and you have a recipe for theatrical disaster. On video, The Saint stumbles by in a dark blur as you wait, in vain, for Kilmer to show some of his old mad spark. If this were a high school reunion, he’d be the former star athlete who still looks great — but whose eyes hold a growing bafflement at the curveballs life keeps throwing. C-

The Saint
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