PLOT: After losing his voice during a long battle with cancer, actor VAL Kilmer looks back at his life story through the thousands of hours of footage he shot of himself throughout his career.
REVIEW: Val is a must-watch for anyone who likes a good Hollywood yarn. One of the biggest stars of the nineties after his turns in The Doors, Tombstone, and Batman Forever, Kilmer saw his reputation go up in flames after bowing out of Batman & Robin (a smart choice in hindsight) and reportedly running amuck on the set of The Island of Doctor Moreau. Many wrote him off as mercurial and egomaniacal. Still, through it all, everyone always knew he was talented, and had he not been felled by cancer, an illness that cost him his most valuable asset, his voice, his career likely would have gone on and on. This documentary by Leo Scott and Ting Poo confronts the fact that his acting career may be over for Kilmer, but even still, the man himself has found a kind of inner peace that’s hard to come by.
Notably, the film also benefits from the amazing fact that Kilmer, throughout his whole life, was a compulsive videographer, shooting home movies constantly, and seemingly nothing was off-limits in this warts and all portrait. We see, through his footage, the young Kilmer being educated at Julliard and finding his voice as an actor, with footage of him partying with other young actor hopefuls like Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn. The movie also takes us through the Top Gun years, with loads of juicy off-set footage showing how Kilmer, Rick Rossovich, Barry Tubb, and, surprisingly, Kelly McGillis became hard-partying pals. He acknowledges his good-natured rivalry with Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards, even if you can tell there’s some jealousy behind Kilmer’s competitiveness.
It’s an invaluable document, and Kilmer deserves a lot of credit for the fact that it stops way short of being hagiography, with him acknowledging he was a pain in the ass in the pursuit of his craft, especially when making The Doors. You see footage of him living for a year as Jim Morrison while his then-wife Joanne Whalley tries to support him. We also see some audition tapes he made for Goodfellas (he would have been bad), Full Metal Jacket (he would have been great), and more.
The film is intriguingly narrated, with Kilmer’s son Jack, whose voice is uncannily similar to his dad’s, reading his narration. At the same time, Val himself sits for extended, subtitled interviews as he struggles to speak with his seriously compromised voice. The footage on hand is a treasure trove, especially when we get to The Island of Doctor Moreau. A whole documentary (Lost Souls) made about how difficult a shoot it was, and Kilmer himself doesn’t excuse his behavior, allowing them to show some arguments with director John Frankenheimer that paint him as a petulant child. Yet, you also understand that he’s been shattered by the fact that his co-star, and the only reason he wanted to do the movie in the first place, Marlon Brando, has checked out and is barely on-set.
The stories here are amazing, with the Batman Forever section especially illuminating as Kilmer shows how back then, superhero costumes were notoriously cumbersome, and he basically couldn’t move in it the entire shoot and had to act only with his arms and mouth. If the movie had been shot a decade later, when superhero suits gave stars more flexibility, he likely would have enjoyed the experience a whole lot more.
Through it all, Kilmer seems to have a special place in his heart for his turn as Doc Holliday in Tombstone, with on-set footage showing a great relationship between him and Kurt Russell. The two seemed to click. In a touching moment, Kilmer appears at a Texas screening of Tombstone but becomes melancholy seeing himself on screen as he realizes his livelihood now totally depends on exploiting his past career while his dreams for the future, including his Mark Twain passion project, go unrealized.
It adds up to a touching portrait of a man that, like many of us, hasn’t always acted well but remains utterly decent as a person. Whatever he was like as a colleague or husband, one role he seemed to excel at was being a dad, with his two kids, Jack and Mercedes, obviously adoring him.
In the end, Val is a must-watch for anyone with even a passing interest in Kilmer’s career, while fans (and I’m one) will devour it. It’s a truthful, beautiful portrait of a guy who seems a whole lot nicer than his reputation suggests.
Val is now playing in theaters, and comes to Amazon Prime Video August 6th.