In 1926, Leslie Charteris wrote a novel about a world class thief named Simon Templar (aka "The Saint"). This first book evolved into a successful series that eventually was turned into a number of films in the 30's and 40's. Both the novels and movie adaptations of the Simon Templar character predate James Bond by decades. It's probable that there was some inspiration for James Bond in the success of his predecessor, but there are plenty of distinct differences between the two. In the latest film version of the character, which fills in a background story that Charteris never wrote about, the differences are made even starker.
"The Saint" begins with Templar as an orphan, who is given his name by the Catholic priests who raise him. He funnels his confused identity and nimble fingers into a career as a thief-for-hire who is also s master of disguise. He's hired by a corrupt Russian oil tycoon (Rade Serbedzija) to steal a formula for cold fusion from an American scientist (Elisabeth Shue). When he uses her vulnerability and loneliness in order to enter her life, he finds himself being analyzed, in turn. This development unnerves him, and he ends up falling in love with her. As you can imagine, complications ensue.
Oddly enough, when "The Saint" became a popular television series in the 1960's, the role was played by a pre-Bond Roger Moore. In the 80's, when Moore attempted to resurrect the character for a feature film that he would produce, his top choice for Templar was Pierce Brosnan. Echoes of Bond remain in this latest version. Aside from all the gadgets that Templar produces for every situation, there is a dramatic tune heard repeatedly throughout the film that is just a few notes off from being the "You Only Live Twice" theme. And, of course, the trailer and marketing campaign tried to sell the film as a Bond by any other name.
Yet Bond was, and continues to be, an incredibly suave yet superficial character with lots of flash and little substance. Templar, on the other hand, is a slick yet troubled and flawed figure. There is far more character development in "The Saint" than any Bond film. The drawback to this is less action. I don't consider this a flaw in and of itself, but what action there was didn't seem all that exciting. Only the opening segment, in which he infiltrates a building, steals a microchip and stages a daring getaway by jumping off the roof, really worked for me.
In terms of believability, Elisabeth Shue just pulls off the shy-but-pretty brilliant scientist, (For the pinnacle of ludicrous female scientists, check out Denise Richards as a Nuclear Physicist in "The World is Not Enough"). Then there is Kilmer as the Master of Disguise himself. His different makeup jobs are used for comic effect more than anything else, so the talent itself is not spotlighted. Rather, it is a convenient metaphor for his non-identity: His masks are stripped away and he is made naked in front of Shue. At one point this is done literally as she tears off his cold and wet clothes to save him from hypothermia. Although Kilmer's damaged psyche is overplayed at times, it works well enough for the film and both actors are able to successfully convey their growing relationship.
As far as the ending, I would have been happy with a slow zoom out of the country cabin where Kilmer and Shue hook up. Instead, we get an additional ten minute scene of Kilmer donning a disguise to needlessly engage the police at the University and then get away. This extended scene no doubt was considered a lead up to sequels (and considering the plethora of source material, who can blame them), but these sequels never materialized. It is perhaps just as well, for the advantage of the Bond series is that there is a new girl for each film. For Templar, he's found just the one, and he has no problem with that.
Seven out of Ten