There are some movie stars whose time at the top is seemingly never-ending, but for the majority of actors, being an A-list celebrity lasts for a relatively short period of time. Val Kilmer was as big a star as there was in the 1980s and ’90s, headlining movies like Top Gun, The Doors, Tombstone, and Batman Forever.
But, even though he’s continued to work steadily, his last film of note was 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a very fallow period for a man who’s still only 61 years old.
As the new documentary Val shows, one big reason his work has fallen off in recent years is a battle with throat cancer, which has left him with limited speaking abilities. Now saddled with a semi-permanent breathing tube, he’s unable to speak more than a few raspy words at a time. And yet the film is filled with his words, as his son Jack stepped in to record a voiceover of Kilmer’s thoughts for him.
The film is a retrospective of Kilmer’s life, but it’s much more than just a glorification of his past self. Since he was a child, Kilmer has recorded thousands of hours of video, ranging from home movies he made with his two brothers to audition tapes to behind-the-scenes footage from all of his movies. All of those and more are culled together by directors Ting Pool and Leo Scott for an intimate look at a complicated man who’s still trying to make sense of his life.
As any good documentary should, the film illuminates things that cannot be seen when viewing someone like Kilmer through the filter of his various roles or talk show appearances. The footage shows him as someone who’s innately curious, perhaps to a fault. His constant recording, while yielding some fantastic snapshots of real life, also seems to be a crutch, a way to put something in between him and the world around him.
The film is catnip for movie lovers, with all of Kilmer’s stories and unvarnished video. He captured a young Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn when the three of them starred in the 1983 Broadway play Slab Boys. He made very involved audition tapes for movies like Full Metal Jacket, Goodfellas, and The Doors. And he chronicled revelry on the sets of Top Gun, Willow, and Tombstone, among others.
Best of all is behind-the-scenes footage from the set of the infamous The Island of Dr. Moreau. Kilmer’s camera finds much drama on the set, from Marlon Brando being replaced by a stand-in for certain scenes to arguments with director John Frankenheimer. Kilmer and co-star David Thewlis are shown commiserating with each other over the nightmare shoot, a rare glimpse at actors being brutally honest about how bad their movie is.
The documentary fast-forwards through Kilmer’s post-Island career until his phase playing Mark Twain on stage started in 2012, essentially discounting almost everything he did during that time. Kilmer is obviously a very complex person, and doesn’t deny that he has been a difficult man to work and live with through the years. But he’s also a devoted father whose two children, including daughter Mercedes, remain very close to him.
At one point, Kilmer talks about trying to write a great movie to cement his legacy. The irony is that, even though that film has not come to fruition, he ended up making a fantastic film about his own life by filming anything and everything that interested him. Val is a deep dive into the soul of an enigmatic man and a fun look at the Hollywood history he witnessed along the way.
Val opens in select theaters on July 23 and debuts on Amazon Prime Video on August 6.