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Val (2021)::rating::3.5::rating::3.5

Val Kilmer exists as a walking, talking testament to how destructive a bad reputation can be.  If you generate enough gossip or piss off the wrong people, that hearsay will metastasize in all directions, laying waste to your personal and professional life in the process.  No doubt Kilmer is a talented and meticulous performer, but there’s also a battalion of people who will testify that he’s an insufferable dickface.  Ultimately, those rumors poisoned a fascinating career and led to Kilmer being filed away as a mercurial egomaniac who often acted as his own worst enemy.

In an odd twist, Kilmer has videotaped so much of his life that the camera mounted on his shoulder acts like a supporting character in of itself.  This results in thousands of hours worth of VHS tapes within an entire room of Kilmer’s home.  Alongside the usual footage of wedding toasts and cooing babies, Kilmer also takes us backstage into theater dressing rooms and raging after-parties on the set of Top Gun.  All this raw footage represents a trove of cinema history, but it also feels like a defense mechanism:  It’s as if Kilmer knew he would one day be judged as an enigmatic jerkwad, and these tapes could objectively serve as his side of the story.

As Val begins, we see Kilmer rummaging through his video archives, and this opening immediately underlines the urgency of the film:  Kilmer’s matinee idol looks have been ravaged by throat cancer.  His voice has reduced to an indecipherable growl.  Clearly, Kilmer wants an outlet for his creative energy, along with the opportunity to shape his own narrative while he still can.

Actually, Kilmer allows his son Jack to narrate that story for him.  Jack sounds remarkably like the Real Genius version of his dad, so the gambit pays off.  As Val assembles his footage into a coherent biography, Jack supplies a vulnerable young voice to the memories.

Unsurprisingly, Kilmer’s life is a conveniently cinematic bundle of emotions:  Through childhood footage, we see Val playing in amateur movies, staged by his younger brother Wesley.  Kilmer wistfully notes that Wesley’s imagination and innovation dwarfed his own, and these flashbacks bear the ache of nostalgia.  Indeed, we learn that Wesley drowned at the age of fifteen, and the Kilmer family never fully recovered from the loss.  Afterward, Val Kilmer enrolled at Juilliard, disappeared into his work, and hasn’t really reemerged since.

After Juilliard, Kilmer gradually ascends the Hollywood ladder.  From low-budget piffle like Real Genius and Top Secret!, he quickly graduates up to Top Gun and Willow.  Movie buffs will tell you Kilmer was robbed of an Academy Award for playing Doc Holliday in 1993’s Tombstone. By the mid-90s, Kilmer scores the dream role of Batman in the superhero blockbuster, Batman Forever.  Unfortunately, it’s around this time that his career starts to fly off the rails.  Squabbles with director Joel Schumacher on the set of Forever and John Frankenheimer during the disastrous Island of Dr. Moreau shoot led to Kilmer being labeled as “difficult.”  In the movie business, that roughly translates to being leprous, and Kilmer’s A-list opportunities began to dry up.  Within ten years of Moreau, Kilmer is stuck playing supporting roles, and even those become sporadic.

Strangely, Kilmer’s camera is present for the entirety of this rise and fall.  He keeps rolling during his arguments with Frankenheimer, and records the on-set frustration of co-star David Thewlis.  We also see the unabashedly disappointing moment when Kilmer attempts to engage with Marlon Brando, one of his idols, and asks the great man a few broad philosophical questions.  Brando, swinging lazily in a hammock, passively dismisses the young actor by asking for “a push.”

Kilmer also uses his footage to quash a few long-standing rumors, the biggest of all relating to his supposed feud with Tom Cruise.  While Kilmer admits the two actors played up their character rivalry onset, this never extended into real life.  We see the two guys horsing around with Anthony Edwards behind the scenes, thus putting the rumor to rest that Cruise and Kilmer could barely speak to each other.  In other clips, actors such as Robert Downey Jr. speak in fervent defense of their co-star.

Val may be completely subjective, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  For my entire movie-going life, I’ve only heard that Kilmer is an eccentric asshole, so it’s refreshing to see him humanized so candidly.  It’s difficult to rehabilitate a bad reputation, but hopefully this documentary can help Val Kilmer take back ownership of his own life story.  Val is a must-watch for movie buffs.

108 min.  R.  Amazon.

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