Review: 'Val' puts Val Kilmer's career and struggles in the spotlight
Courtesy of Prime Video
Watching the opening minutes of “Val,” an enlightening and humane documentary about actor Val Kilmer, you’re hit like a sack of bricks. The film begins with a montage pulling back the curtain on some of Kilmer’s greatest performances before the reminder of his current state. In these early moments, it’s heartbreaking seeing Kilmer, who fought a hard battle with throat cancer, now speaking with the help of a electrolarynx and realizing his most valuable asset, his voice, is now gone. Directed by Leo Scott and Ting Poo, “Val” is an earnest documentary that proves a roaring lion can’t be kept down and even through Kilmer’s acting career will probably never reach those late eighties or early-to-mid nineties highs, he’s found peace within himself and wants to spread that love to others.
It helps that Kilmer was an ardent videographer throughout his life (much ahead of his time as most folks didn’t feel camcorders were necessary) and similar to Soleil Moon Frye's archival doc “kid90,” “Val'' employs a similar aesthetic. It pieces together unprecedented behind-the-scenes footage (Marlon Brando swinging on a hammock during the shoot of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” anyone?) to put into perspective the actor’s triumphs (“Top Gun” and “Heat”) and downfalls (divorce, cancer, and well, “The Island of Dr. Moreau”). We witness through his grainy, VHS preserved footage, the type of life he lived: be it partying with other young actors on the rise, Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon, keeping up a friendly rivalry with Tom Cruise, or the abysmal shoot of “Batman Forever,” Kilmer remained the same, cool-headed dude yearning for his next prize even if the payoff wasn’t as sweet.
It’s a remarkable piece of history that’s now encapsulated on screen for the entire world to witness. That it’s narrated by Kilmer’s son, Jack, who sounds very similar to his father in terms of cadence and delivery, presents a full circle mantra which complements the experience. Kilmer also gives some candid, not entirely flattering interviews, going into detail the impact his children and friends had on his life and career. Such self-indulgence can teter on the side of preachy and melodramatic, after all it is a movie he produced about his life, but the heart of “Val” reminds us never to take the little things for granted.
The stories he tells are nothing short of extraordinary, including the “Batman Forever” stint of the film (the movie is broken up into segments of his most iconic roles sans “MacGruber” which is practically sacrilegious) and goes into lengthy detail about the crossroads he faced as a rising, bankable star and though playing an iconic cape crusader yielded a sizable paycheck, it wasn’t a fulfilling creative outlet for him playing the straight man against electric character performers. When asked to come back for the sequel, he turned it down for meatier roles with larger subtext. The salary didn’t matter. And though Kilmer didn’t maintain that box office momentum into the 21st century, he still proved to be a decent guy with a solid moral compass. And for those reasons, “Val” is a must-watch for fans of the performer’s eclectic career, but also for those trying to understand an actor who has since reclaimed purpose and is rewriting their own destiny.
VAL debuts on Amazon Prime Video Friday, August 6th