Desert Saints (2002) Movie Review

Desert Saints is a Hitman’s Last Job picture, essentially a Hitman film that relies on that tried and true (and clich’ to the nth degree) premise of a famous hitman who goes on one last big job before permanently hanging up his shingles and sailing off into the sunset. Of course, as is the case with all Hitman’s Last Job films, the last job for our hitman never goes as planned and complications arise. The premise has been done to death and frankly, I’m sick and tired of it, and wish someone would stop doing it. Is it so hard to make a hitman movie where the hitman isn’t “going on that last job before retirement?” Are filmmakers that lazy nowadays?

Desert Saints stars Kiefer Sutherland as Banks, the retiring hitman in question, who has been in retirement for a while before resurfacing again to go on “that last big job” before really retiring this time. On his way to Mexico for the job, Banks picks up hitchhiker Bennie (Melora Walters), who brings along a chatty mouth, enough annoyance for a busload of hyper preschoolers, and plenty of sass. We learn that Banks is being pursued by veteran FBI man Scanlon (Jamey Sheridan), who has a score to settle with Banks. It seems The Powers That Be back in Washington wants Banks captured alive in order to flip him — i.e. turn him into a state witness so he can give up all of his past clients. Banks, you see, is a legendary hitman, and he has a wealth of knowledge in his head that can put a lot of bad guys in prison…

There is nothing in writer/director Richard Greenberg’s Desert Saints that you haven’t seen before in countless other Hitman’s Last Job movies. All the cliché are here, from the tough cop (in this case, an FBI agent) who sorts of admire the hitman, but still wants to nail him; the love interest who doesn’t know what the hitman does, but when she does learns, doesn’t seem to mind; and lo and behold, even those lovable bad guys who hires our hitman and who can’t be trusted to not stab our man in the back at the first opportunity.

The most disappointing thing about Desert Saints is that its first 10 minutes are actually very good. The premise and look of Sutherland’s Banks is very unique — he’s supposedly Ivy League educated (which leads us to wonder how he got to become a hitman in the first place) but looks like a hillbilly redneck (which makes us wonder if his reputation is a scam). When we first see Banks, he’s coldly dispatching a female cohort who he has used for various purposes, but no longer has a need for. Right away, we know Banks is a sadistic bastard and can’t be trusted.

So what happens? For the next 70 minutes director Greenberg and fellow writer Wally Nichols begin to turn our sadistic hitman into a pale version of his former (or at least in that first 10 minutes) self. As one character quips toward the end of the film, in reference to Banks, “This is the legendary assassin?” I share his confusion. Kiefer Sutherland (Dark City) is very good as Banks in the beginning, but his character gradually de-evolves before our very eyes, and I started to pity the man — not because I started to like him, but because I’ve seen him wade through 70 minutes of Hell, er, I mean Bennie. The slick, unpredictable killer is turned into an easily duped redneck that can’t do anything right, and makes all the wrong choices regarding the Bennie character. As the film closes, Desert Saints tries to bring back the “badness” that was evident in Banks in the beginning, but it’s much too little too late.

As mentioned, joining Sutherland is Melora Walters as Bennie. It’s not that Walters can’t act, she’s just not very good, and her shift in character at the 50-minute mark didn’t impress me because it didn’t convince me. It turns out Bennie is actually an FBI agent, sent in as a plant for Banks to pick up and take along with him on his hit. But if that’s the case then why was she so annoying and insufferable? Wouldn’t constantly nagging and asking pointless questions just to annoy Banks be counterproductive and make bringing her along too much of a risk for Banks to take?

It is completely ridiculous for director Greenberg to expect us to swallow that this professional assassin would helplessly grit his teeth through Bennie’s endless series of childish personalities, especially after we just saw him shoot another young woman in the back without so much as a flicker of hesitation.

The most interesting part of Desert Saints is the relationship between Marbury and Scanlon, the two FBI agents on Banks’ trail. The two actors are very relaxed around each other and have good rapport, not to mention the presence of sexual tension between them. Unfortunately the film doesn’t come back to them often enough, which is too bad, because Leslie Stefanson is an attractive woman and her chemistry with Sheridan’s Scanlon is worthwhile.

Desert Saints runs at a scant 80 minutes. You might think that with such a low running time the film was heavily edited to move at a brisk pace, but you would be wrong. Very little happens in the movie — Banks runs, the FBI chases, Banks shoots a couple of people, and blah. The ending, which is supposed to be a big shocker, just seems silly, reminding me that in this day and age everyone and their mom feels the need to add a “twist ending” to their movies, even if it doesn’t make a lick of sense.

I could have used more of Marbury and Scanlon and less of Bennie and Banks. Well, actually, I could have used less of Bennie period. How annoying is her character? Let’s just say I kept asking myself why Banks hasn’t shot her and dumped her body as easily as he had dumped his last girl. What in the world is holding him back? Bennie is certainly no knockout; she’s not even all that attractive. Without the breast enhancements and blonde hair, actress Melora Walters could be mistaken for a 12-year old boy. (No offense, Melora.)

Desert Saints wants to be a “cool” Hitman film by shifting back and forth in time, but it’s a complete waste of time. With the success of his TV show “24,” I can only hope that Kiefer Sutherland will start getting better film roles than this dreck.

Richard Greenberg (director) / Richard Greenberg, Wally Nichols (screenplay)
CAST: Kiefer Sutherland …. Banks
Melora Walters …. Bennie
Leslie Stefanson …. Marbury
Jamey Sheridan …. Scanlon
Rachel Ticotin …. Dora

Buy Desert Saints on DVD