If you don’t know this website’s deal with Val Kilmer, don’t worry, we’ll cover it in detail soon. Suffice to say, though, he’s the greatest. And yet, not everything he’s ever made is the greatest. Confusing, right? Ahh, well, life is full of paradoxes.
That said, I hate to leave you confused so, here you go. The definitive guide to what’s what when it comes to the one, the only Valor (that could be his full first name, you don’t know) Kilmer!
Val Kilmer Canon (In Chronological Order) (Roughly)
Real Genius- So delightful. An 80’s comedy that remains funny and is not too badly scarred by that era’s somewhat…unfortunate attitudes re: race and gender. And given Kilmer’s more intense reputation and performances in the years that follow, his delightfully breezy irreverence as a genius who refuses to take anything seriously (or at least, admit he takes anything seriously) is a nice reminder that he is a uniquely funny performer when given the chance.
Top Gun- First, see the Tom Cruise Canon from last week for the general description of what is great about this movie. Then, remember “the bite” and realize how smartly Kilmer embodied Maverick’s “rival” Iceman without drowning in a river of cheese.
The Doors- I am probably in the minority on this, but of all Stone’s “bio” movies, this may be my favorite. It is not the best—the hyperactive, nearly insane JFK gets that nod—but…I don’t know. Stone’s overheated style hits nicely with the mythologizing of Jim Morrison that had already encircled the Doors frontman by the time of the movie’s release. The fact that Kilmer lived up to and subverted that myth at the same time keeps the movie from spinning somewhere into the upper atmosphere.
Thunderheart- The logline of this makes it sound disastrous: Kilmer plays an FBI agent who happens to be part Native American and ends up assigned to a case about murders on a reservation. But it is not disastrous. In fact, it is very good. Yes, it is shot through with the kind of “Native Americans are mystic” attitude that makes movies about the Native American experience problematic but it is also funny and more often than not grounds the lives of those on the reservation in the tragic reality of what the United States’ legacy of mistreatment has wrought. Kilmer as a Native American still stretches credulity, but his acting is strong and at least the film fills the rest of the roles with strong Native American performers.
True Romance- Kilmer’s role here, as Slater’s mentor, a spectral Elvis, is small, it’s true. But the whole movie is too damn good to ignore. Loud, mean, bloody, but really damn good. Kilmer’s not the reason, per se, but he is a nice bit of icy on a delicious cake of mayhem.
Tombstone- A year after Unforgiven buried the western, Hollywood couldn’t resist digging it up with not one but two Wyatt Earp biopics, this one and the Kevin Costner snoozefest Wyatt Earp. In case that little bit of editorializing does not make it clear, I like Tombstone better. It is bigger, sillier (at points, it makes no effort to mask that it was filmed on a soundstage—Old Tuscon Studios to be exact), and fully embraces the “magical Old West” feel, which, to my money, was the only way to respond to Unforgiven so thoroughly unraveling the tropes.
But does it work without Kilmer’s hypnotic “lunger” Doc Holliday? I’m not sure, but I am glad I don’t have to find out. I love, love, LOVE this performance. At the risk of being hyperbolic, I think it is ridiculous that Kilmer didn’t net a nod for Best Supporting Actor for this. In a year where Jones won for The Fugitive, it seems criminal that Kilmer didn’t squeak in.
(For the record, Ralph Fiennes not winning for his work in Schindler’s List is the bigger crime, but still. And if you are wondering who I’d cut? Malkovich’s villain from In the Line of Fire, no doubt. I like it, but it is kind of a clichéd mad genius performance, isn’t it?)
Heat- I remember reading one review that described Kilmer as an “anti-Batman” in this movie and that’s pretty dumb. I just want to get that said first.
Second, he’s still very good in what might is certainly one of director Michael Mann’s crown jewels (the other, and better, being The Insider). He, quietly, ends up being the antithesis of his boss played by Robert DeNiro: a career criminal who refuses to not put down roots or make connections and is saved by that willingness to fall in love, build a family, and so on.
The Salton Sea- A noir tinged movie that, at times, feels a bit like a non-supernatural Angelheart smooshed together with a non-amnesiac Memento. To be clear, both of those are superior films, but Sea is good enough to at least touch the tone of those at times.
Kilmer is a little…sleepy at times, but it works with the fever dream feel as well as the lack of clarity about who he really is (fake identities pile up on top of each other as the film progresses). A deliciously over the top performance by Vincent D’Onofrio (I talked about it here prior) and a quietly reliable turn by Peter Sarsgaard buoy the final product as well.
Spartan- Terse, coiled, wildly competent, and still utterly over his head, Kilmer spits Mamet’s dialogue here with surprising effectiveness. Not one of Mamet’s best, to be sure, but the corkscrew plot and the pure rate of reversal of fortunes make this one of his more propulsive on-screen efforts.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang- If there were any justice, Kiss would’ve kicked off a series of Downey Jr./Kilmer quirky humor noirs. Alas, there is not. But we can still enjoy this one, in which the duo (Downey Jr. as a petty criminal pretending to be an actor studying how to play a P.I., Kilmer as a Los Angeles P.I. who is charged with training RDJ) spit incredible Shane Black dialogue and seem to have a delightful time doing it—a fact only enhanced by listening to their commentary on the DVD (and hopefully, the Blu-Ray).
Lesser Films Still Worthy of Consideration
Top Secret!- Kilmer’s first feature work, a deeply silly parody of spy and mistaken identity movies from the Zucker brothers. Not as funny as Kilmer’s efforts in Real Genius or the Zucker Brothers’ Airplane, but there are still some laugh-worthy set pieces.
Batman Forever- Look…Schumacher’s Batfilms have acquired a not undeserved level of scorn. That said, I maintain that the very understandable hate for Batman and Robin is retroactively applied to this one. Kilmer’s Bruce Wayne/Batman is not as affectingly odd as Keaton’s or as darkly tortured as Bale, but he brings a lithe athleticism to the part. Additionally, he doesn’t fold under what is some pretty bad dialogue and blatant product tie-ins, which is impressive in and of itself.
(Truth be told, I don’t have enough space here to fully mount a defense of Kilmer’s Batman. Maybe someday soon.)
The Saint- This is a bad movie, make no bones about it. But as a hammy showcase for Kilmer playing tortured near-impossible to understand artists, hyper-nerdy science journalists, and suave thiefs, it is kind of a farcical joy.
Pollock- A good movie that he is good in but it is almost a cameo, yet another slight to the person he plays, artist Willem deKooning.
Wonderland- This suffers from, essentially, covering the same ground as Boogie Nights, but nonfictional and not nearly as much fun. Still, as the very broken John Holmes, Kilmer’s performance has a sort of trainwreck power. This is not an enjoyable movie, it is grim to the point of despair, but the acting is strong nonetheless.
Déjà vu- This is a Denzel Washington movie, really, and so implausible, it threatens to destroy the very nature of reality. It is also stylish (as directed by Tony Scott) and Kilmer deploys a kind of laconic ease as the head agent in charge of—and yes, I’m being serious here—a time traveling FBI unit.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans- Nic Cage is as crazed as can be, hopped up on drugs and a toxic cocktail of rage, panic, and bravado. Kilmer is his down-to-earth partner. Just picture that. As directed by Werner Herzog, it’s even crazier than whatever you’re imagining.
MacGruber- Like Last Samurai in Tom Cruise’s Canon, I am putting this on the list despite it not really engaging me. Enough people I trust have told me it is funny to persuade me to include it, even though I found it largely laugh free. I probably just wasn’t in the right mood the first time around, I guess.
A Few to Avoid
So…this one is a tough one when it comes to Kilmer because he’s made a lot…A LOT…of direct to video movies. Presumably most, if not all (although, oddly, I’ve read that the two where he teams-up with 50 Cent are surprisingly good), could be listed here. Having seen zero of them though, I’m just leaving them be. Besides, it feels a little like punching down, you know? So that’s focus on the theatricals.
Mindhunters- Ugly, stupid, and utterly convinced it is cool.
Alexander- Kilmer is actually good as the fairly unhinged one- eyed Philip. The movie is an overlong disaster though. Stone and Kilmer part 2 is not magical.
Twixt- Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Boasting performances by Bruce Dern, David Paymer, and Elle Fanning amongst others. An utter mess. Kilmer barely seems to have a pulse here and I can hardly blame him for not trying. What a disappointment.