The Spool / Movies
Val is a sweet look at the life & career of Val Kilmer
The once-difficult actor reflects on 40 years of show business with insight & tenderness.
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The once-difficult actor reflects on 40 years of show business with insight & tenderness.

When we think back to actors of the 80s, we often think of the Brat Pack, that group of young charismatic stars whose impossible good looks occasionally compensated for middling acting ability. They were cute, and likable, but often lacked that element that makes certain actors more interesting, that sense of danger and mystery. Those actors, like Mickey Rourke, Sean Penn, and Nicolas Cage, didn’t get “Dream Date of the Month” write-ups in Teen Beat, but were more talented, more versatile, and more compelling to watch. 

Falling somewhere in the middle was Val Kilmer, matinee idol handsome, but with a quirky, elliptical energy that made it difficult to cast him. Kilmer himself didn’t make that any easier, and he addresses that in Val, a touching and engaging look at his life and career that compensates for a lack of any real dirt with a new appreciation for Kilmer’s talents and philosophy on life.

Relying heavily on what appears to be thousands of hours of home video footage, Val is narrated by Kilmer’s son, Jack, who also frequently appears on camera. Kilmer’s once pleasant speaking voice has been ravaged by cancer treatments, including a tracheotomy, leaving it raspy and garbled. The choice to use a voice stand-in seems to be one of practicality rather than discomfort, however, as Kilmer does often speak on camera, looking directly into the lens as if daring the viewer to avert their eyes. It’s one of several unexpectedly powerful moments in the film.

It’s easy to see from early on in Val that Kilmer’s drive to succeed as an actor was rooted in the accidental death of his “supergenius” younger brother, who, if the short films they made together as kids were any indicator, had a promising career in the movie industry ahead of him. Even decades later, his brother’s ghost seems to linger in every aspect of Kilmer’s life, not in a way that torments him, but brings him peace, particularly in the face of illness. There’s an intimacy to it that isn’t often found in celebrity documentaries.

[It’s] a touching and engaging look at his life and career that compensates for a lack of any real dirt with a new appreciation for Kilmer’s talents and philosophy on life.

In between glimpses of Kilmer’s life past and present (there don’t seem to be many moments that weren’t captured on film in one way or another), he discusses some of his favorite performances, including Top Gun, The Doors, and Tombstone, of which he’s clearly the most proud (sorry, fans of Top Secret — and I’m with you — he doesn’t like that one, dismissing it as “fluff”). He even spends some time on the notorious nightmare production of The Island of Dr. Moreau, perhaps savvily surmising that people are going to ask him about it anyway, so he might as well beat them to the punch.

Unsurprisingly, given Kilmer is one of the producers, Val glosses over the allegations that he was an egotistical terror to work with, particularly in the mid-90s. While not denying them, exactly, Kilmer attributes his reputation to perfectionism, and a desire to turn every acting job into an exercise in personal exploration and world building, whether it was warranted or not. Mostly, he just seemed to take himself a little too seriously, often believing himself to be too good for the roles he was being offered, and that inflexibility resulted in a career that was more promised than delivered.

One thing that’s certain is that Kilmer doesn’t take himself seriously now. Spraying Silly String and goofing off in a Batman costume with his son, he’s humble now, relaxed and good-humored, which is remarkable considering he’s recovering from cancer that left him disfigured and unable to eat or speak clearly. For someone long perceived to be a Hollywood-created monster, he looks back on his career without bitterness, and is able to admit that he too often simply got in his own way. If he seems a bit disappointed that, rather than being offered new roles, he’s instead appearing at fan screenings of Tombstone, he also very much enjoys it. The predominant emotion that comes across from Kilmer is gratitude.

If you have your mind made up about what kind of person Val Kilmer is, I can’t promise that Val is going to change your mind. He still occasionally comes off as a little precious and self-important, but also while all but winking at the camera, as if he knows how silly he sounds. It’s hard to watch Kilmer weep while going through his late mother’s jewelry collection, or interact with his children (who clearly adore him) and not admire his ability to see the error of his ways and change. Val Kilmer is well aware that he’s been given a very special gift: another chance at life, and another chance to set things right. It’s impossible to not root for him, even just a little.

Val is now available on Amazon Prime.

Val Trailer:

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