By Richard Ades
At the beginning of the biographical documentary Val, Val Kilmer claims he’s “almost been fired” from all his movies. While that corresponds with the actor’s reputation as someone who’s hard to work with, the film ultimately portrays him as someone who may be eccentric and stubborn, but also thoughtful and dedicated to his craft.
Kilmer is also very unlucky, we learn early on, as a 2015 bout with throat cancer has stolen the now-61-year-old actor’s most valuable asset: his voice. Two tracheotomies have left him unable to speak other than croaking out a few words in between gasps of breath. As a result, son Jack Kilmer has been given the task of narrating the story of his father’s life.
Fortunately, the task of illustrating that life has largely been taken care of, as Val Kilmer was an early and eager adopter of home videography. It’s probably no coincidence that first-time directors Ting Poo and Leo Scott previously worked primarily as editors, as their main job here was to pare down what must have been miles of old footage into a coherent documentary. (Tyler Pharo joins them as the flick’s third editor.)
For Kilmer fans, or just film fans in general, the result is intriguing. We see Kilmer landing his first professional off-Broadway role after losing the play’s leads to Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn. We see him making his mark in 1980s movies such as Willow and Top Gun. We see him filming his own auditions, at one point even firing off live ammunition to show his suitability for an action role.
As Kilmer’s popularity continues to rise in the 1990s, the doc shows him going all out to capture the part he sees as his destiny: rocker Jim Morrison in The Doors. It also shows him suffering through 1995’s Batman Forever, which forced him to wear a heavy bat suit that made it difficult to act or even to move. Not surprisingly, he turned down offers to repeat the iconic role.
Val eventually approaches the perverse attraction of a highway accident scene when it shows Kilmer on the troubled set of 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. At one point, Kilmer expresses his frustration with the production’s problems by refusing to shut off his own video camera despite director John Frankenheimer’s pleas. Since Frankenheimer inherited the film, along with temperamental star Marlon Brando, from another director who left just days into the shooting, it’s hard to know who deserves our sympathy the most here.
That’s also true at other points in the documentary, especially when Kilmer complains about his 1996 divorce from actress Joanne Whalley and subsequent separations from their children, Jack and Mercedes. But in general, the actor comes across as a sympathetic figure.
Home movies from Kilmer’s childhood reveal family problems and tragedies that helped to shape him: a distant mother; a father whose business ventures didn’t always pan out; and especially the early loss of his creative younger brother, Wesley. Even more affecting is present-day footage that shows cancer survivor Kilmer being forced to live off his past triumphs by greeting fans at a Tombstone screening and a local Comic-Con.
A couple of quibbles: At times Val could have been organized in a more logical manner, and it never really delivers on Kilmer’s early promise to impart something profound about the craft of acting. Otherwise, the flick is well worth one hour and 49 minutes’ worth of any cinephile’s time.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Val (rated R) opens July 23 at select theaters, including Central Ohio’s Drexel Theatre, Gateway Film Center and Marcus Crosswoods Cinema. It will be available through Amazon Prime beginning Aug. 6.