Documentary Review: Enfeebled and Humbled, “Val” captures the Iceman in Winter

Jack Kilmer, Val Kilmer‘s son, reads his dad’s voice-over narration in “Val,” the autobiographical documentary he produced and co-directors Ting Poo and Leo Scott assembled out of half a century of Kilmer home videos and movies.

Val lost his voice, perhaps permanently, to throat cancer, and speaks in a metallic rasp that requires subtitles or, if you’re meeting him in person, very careful attention to every bend of sound.

He’s 61 and can’t tour with the “Citizen Twain” one-man show he dreamed of turning into a feature film. And although his career isn’t over — he plays a mob boss/throat injury survivor, to good effect, in “The Birthday Cake” — he has reached something like the end of the line of his acting life, something acknowledged by this film and the charming autobiography, “I’m Your Huckleberry,” he published last year.

That makes “Val” a bittersweet outing, a movie about a man who was once a great screen beauty, who admits “I don’t look great” and “I’m selling basically my old self, my old career” by signing autographs and posing for fan photos at conventions and special screenings of his greatest hits — “Tombstone,” “Top Gun,” “The Doors,” “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.”

It’s a vanity project that washes away the vanity, a faded star who spent time in the tabloids being mocked for weight gains and letting himself go and a “difficult” actor, a diva who spent a lot of time explaining that away, or why he quit Batman after one movie, on chat shows over the years.

So while the film is largely in his words and entirely from his point of view, and the music rights budget (The Doors, Dylan, Donna Summer) could finance many a cheaper documentary, Kilmer owns up to who he is, where he’s been and what he’s become. And he explains things — acting, the movie star’s life and lot, and himself, how he got this “reputation.”

“I’ve lived in the illusion as much as I’ve lived without it,” repeating the familiar refrain that a character is part fictional, and partly “me.” “I have behaved poorly, I have behaved bravely.”

As he noted in his book, he was shaken to his core by the early death of his older, artistic and aspiring filmmaker brother Wesley, whose DIY movie parodies (“Teeth” was a goof on “Jaws”) they made together as children.

But what the movie does that the book could not is let us see clips of Val on movie sets in which he’s given his character’s room artwork created by Wes, who drowned at 15. Kilmer was an early and enthusiastic videographer, recording his easy interaction with the other pre-stardom Young Turks of Acting, Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn, backstage in their New York breakout play “The Slab Boys.”

We see snippets of his Juilliard work, rehearsals, his first film (“Top Secret”) and many of those that followed, videoing backstage and on-set footage, seeing the U.S.S. Enterprise (“Top Gun” for the first time, chatting with co-stars and worshipping British actress Joanne Whalley in Danny Boyle’s “The Genius” at the Royal Court Theatre after each day’s filming on “Top Secret.” They later worked together on “Willow,” and married shortly afterward.

The wedding footage here is terribly touching, especially in light of the marriage ending during the making of “The Island of Doctor Moreau.”

Kilmer tells stories and talks about acting, the “soap opera” level posing that being clad in the restrictive Batsuit calls for and what you “really” do when you verbally agree to something that turns into a contract and then an obligation to make the movie.

It’s “your life that you’re agreeing to forfeit,” opinions, liberty, the works suborned to the studio’s needs.

We’re shown snippets of his many TV interviews where he was challenged about being “difficult” and “a perfectionist,” and see archival interviews with “Kiss Kiss” co-star Robert Downey Jr. and “Doors” director Oliver Stone defending the artist and his technique.

But there’s also unflattering footage where Kilmer kept videoing on the set of the “doomed from the start” bomb, “The Island of Doctor Moreau.” The replacement director John Frankenheimer, one of the greatest ever, was “just trying to get through” the picture that had become a lost cause, and Kilmer baits him with the video camera and indulges and idolizes Marlon Brando (who often sent a double to the set) backstage, the bloated star in his hammock asking Kilmer to “give me a shove” (so that it would swing).

We’re given the sense that co-star David Thewlis was Kilmer’s co-conspirator on “Moreau,” struggling to humor Brando (who switched off and all but shut down production), to collaborate and “write” better scenes each night off set. But even Thewlis slams the door on that notion in a later Kilmer clip, plainly irritated at what the two big-names were doing to make a bad situation unbearable.

Nobody came off looking good after that one. And including Kilmer’s calmly aggressive custody arguments on the phone with his unheard ex-wife Whalley, and seeing his childish silly string prank when she accompanies him to deal with his just-died mother’s corpse is another way the “vanity” is stripped away.

The portrait that emerges isn’t far off from the one journalists have picked up on from our chats with Kilmer over the years. He’s very smart, wonderfully thoughtful and articulate, gets deep into character and doesn’t suffer those who don’t respect the art and the effort it takes to make it. He’s still serious about the Christian Science Church his family raised him in. But arrogant? Oh yes

What “Val” shows us is that artist is still there (he paints and makes collages, now), enfeebled by the illness that turned the slow decline of his career into an abrupt halt, humbled but philosophical and grateful about all he’s gotten to see and do.

MPA Rating: R, some language (profanity), a little nudity

Cast: Val Kilmer, Jack Kilmer, with Joanne Whalley, Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey Jr., Oliver Stone, Mercedes Kilmer and Marlon Brando.

Credits: Directed by Ting Poo and Leo Scott. An Amazon Studios release (Amazon Prime)

Running time: 1:48

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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