Movie Reviews

by Mark Leeper

Mark Leeper writes: I am a lifelong fan of science fiction--well, at least since age 6. By training I am a mathematician and mathematics is still a passion of mine. I joined Bell Laboratories in 1978, along with my wife Evelyn. Finding no outlet for science fiction at Bell Labs, Evelyn and I founded a science fiction club that same year and have run it ever since. We had to tell members what books we were reading for the club, so was born a notice, now a weekly publication called the MT VOID. I write a weekly editorial and film reviews for the notice, Evelyn writes book reviews and we both write other odd pieces. Having the reviews and assorted articles, we also re-post them to the Internet. From there they are reposted various and sundry places.

The Saint - The Fifth Element
The Baby of Macon

The Saint

Leslie Charteris's famed hero fails
to come to the screen in this film inspired as much
by the old Mission Impossible program as The Saint
or Charteris's stories. Val Kilmer gets a real
field day playing in many disguises, and his
character certainly had possibilities. But the
script fell well short of being a cracking good
story of international intrigue.
Rating: 0 (-4 to +4)
New York Critics: 1 positive, 10 negative, 6 mixed

I am told that back in the 1970s a young filmmaker came to the owners of the rights to the character Flash Gordon and said he wanted to make a Flash Gordon movie. They turned the filmmaker down so he created a brand new hero of his own, calling him Luke Skywalker. Fortunes are made and lost on such decisions. But the question is why would even some of the most talented filmmakers choose to use pre- existing characters when they can create new ones of their own who are just as interesting. One might be that they think they can explore some new approach to an existing character; the other is to exploit audience recognition value. A test to see which is true would be whether the character would be recognizable with the names changed. Frequently there are good films made that re-examine Sherlock Holmes. Almost always these films would be recognizable as being about Sherlock Holmes even if he were given another name. One film that definitely does not pass the test is the new The Saint. Without being told that this character sometimes uses the name Simon Templar (but usually not) and without the use of the Saint stick- figure logo toward the end of the film, there is nothing in Val Kilmer's nameless character that at all evoke Leslie Charteris's roguish troubleshooter. And that is almost surprising since the original Simon Templar is sort of an all- purpose adventure character. He might in one adventure be battling diamond smugglers, in another dangerous spies, and in still another his opponent would be a mad scientist who has bred an ant the size of a train car. Frequently he was suspected to be on the fuzzy edge of the law, but he never actually was. He usually used his own name, rarely used disguises, and probably never used Bondian gadgets though he did use his own suave personality. In short, there is just about nothing in the new Val Kilmer version of The Saint evocative of the character as written or portrayed before. Not that this is not an interesting character. In fact, this film would have been much better had it not played on the audience's expectations to see Simon Templar.

The story opens in what can only be termed "the Catholic School from Hell." Because one boy does not take to the Saint's name he has been assigned, all the girls are locked in their dorms and the boys will get no food. This seems like a particularly virulent piece of gratuitous anti-Catholicism. Perhaps because the character will later take the names of saints the filmmakers wanted to make clear this was not a religious film. That becomes really clear when the set loose dogs on some of the children in their charge and one is killed. This incident has scarred for life a man of mystery with no name, but who likes to occasionally use the name Simon Templar. Flash forward a few years and the man is a hi-tech cross between Batman and a James Bond without a British Secret Service to serve. It is never explained where his money comes from, but he obviously has a lot to spend on the latest gadgets. He gets caught up in a really confused plot by the Russian Mafia to steal a formula for practical cold fusion from an attractive American scientist, played by Elizabeth Shue. The whole convoluted story builds to an outlandish climax in Red Square.

Shue is appealing with her slightly geeky touches. Though somehow there just does not seem to be much chemistry between her character and Kilmer's and their romance only seems to bog down the plot. Kilmer is just a little over the top in a fun way with his many and varied disguises. They are each just a bit exaggerated much like Rod Steiger's tour-de-force performance in No Way to Treat a Lady. The problem is the story which is so totally artificial and which so often depends on far-fetched coincidence to get Kilmer's character out of trouble. I think I would like to see more of this character, but in a plot that is much better thought out. And frankly it still irks me that they hung this brand new character on The Saint.

The score of this film by Graeme Revell is not inspiring (which is probably why the trailers borrowed music from The Shadow and Crimson Tide). The film is full of scenes that are not well considered. During one chase the character apparently changes clothes (off camera) in the middle of a crowded public square with nobody noticing.

It would have been nice to have a new film about Leslie Charteris's character. It may even be good to have more stories about this Simon Templar, but they are not the same and this story has too many rough edges. I give this The Saint a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale.

More info about The Saint at the Internet Movie Database

The Fifth Element

Luc Besson's manic sci-fi adventure
will likely accrue a following, but its fans will
not include me. The film has great art direction
but a farce of a plot that devolves into a lot of
familiar elements rather than a few new ones.
Besson has a good eye for a scene but a very forced
sense of humor. There were a lot of good people
who worked on this film and it is a pity their
efforts came to so little.
Rating: low 0 (-4 to +4)
New York Critics: 3 positive, 9 negative, 7 mixed

I wonder if this is a postmodern science fiction movie? If so I am willing to go back to the Modern and start over from there. The Fifth Element is what you would get if you combined a plot from Heavy Metal comic magazine, the pacing of a Japanese anime film, and Terry Gilliam visualizations. It is a film that will probably have a cult following while others will find it, as my wife put it, appallingly bad. France is known for modest art films, and director Luc Besson is French, but he is a renegade with a style generally out of empty Hollywood action films. His previous films include La Femme Nikita and Leon (U.S. title: The Professional). Here he has made a film with perhaps the best art direction since Bladerunner and uses it to tell a dim-witted pop-sci-fi story. Besson, who also co-authored the screenplay, realized that a good plot might be hard to follow for some. He simulates the same effect by having a bad plot that just has a lot of stupid things happening very, very fast.

The Ultimate Evil comes visiting our solar system every 5000 years in the form of a huge glowing sphere that for some unexplained reason is trying to destroy the Earth. I guess that is just what huge glowing spheres do. With the help of some strange aliens and with four mystic stones we Earth people have been able to fend off the evil in the past. In 1914 the friendly aliens took the stones away for safekeeping. Previously they had been guarded by a long line of priests. The priests still know what do to about the coming evil, but no longer have the stones they need. Our main story is set early in the 23rd Century. The Evil is returning. There are forces of Good trying to stop the end of the world and forces of Evil trying to steal the stones. The leader of the evil forces is an industrialist named Zorg, played by Gary Oldman. Just what Zorg hopes to gain by letting his planet be destroyed, if it is his planet, is left as a loose end. I guess stealing mystic symbols is just what evil industrialists do. One of the good aliens is killed and cloned, but in cloned form seems to be a beautiful woman, Milla Jovovich as Le-Eluu. She is terrified of the humans who have cloned her and she takes a swan dive off a skyscraper (all buildings seem to be skyscrapers in the 23rd Century) and lands in the floating taxicab of Korben (Bruce Willis). This pulls Korben into the action and starts him on the quest for the four elemental stones.

Bruce Willis is in the lead and--as he seems to have wanted to show people with In Country--he can act. He just chooses not to push himself much beyond the limited roles he has been playing. Of somewhat more interest is Milla Jovovich. Though much of the film she must speak a nonsense language--actually it sounds a lot like Italian--and makes it sound very natural. This is not generally considered an important acting skill, but here it was what was what was required and she does a very credible job. Gary Oldman at one time seemed to be the Robert Duvall of his generation. He would do well to stay away from Luc Besson films since this is the second film in which Besson has been able to coax from Oldman his very worst and most exaggerated performances. His performance here is at best just not notable, and that is really unusual for an otherwise very good actor. Ian Holm plays a priest of the line entrusted with alien secrets. Like Oldman, he has done better acting jobs and perhaps their efforts are exaggerated intentionally by Besson so nobody misses the point that this film is not intended to be taken entirely seriously.

This film had the budget, the art direction, the special effects, and the cast to make a much better film. One has the feeling that Besson is really talking down to his audiences and laughing up his sleeve. There are moments in this film that show what it could have been, but unfortunately it was no more than it was. This is a film that might be better to watch with the sound off. I rate it a low 0 on the -4 to +4 scale.

More info about The Fifth Element at the Internet Movie Database


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