Val Kilmer Documentary Review: The Iceman Cometh

The actor Val Kilmer is not only the subject of “Val,” a documentary directed by Ting Poo and Leo Scott. He also receives a cinematography credit, having shot many of the home movies and video diary entries that give the film its visual texture. More a self-portrait than a profile, “Val” tells the story of a Hollywood career with a candor that stops short of revelation. The tone is personal but not quite intimate, producing in the viewer a warm, slightly wary feeling of companionship.

Hanging out with Kilmer, now in his early 60s, is an interesting, bittersweet experience. In on-camera interviews, he still radiates movie-star charisma, even though his voice isn’t what it used to be. Since being treated for throat cancer in 2014, he speaks through a tracheostomy tube, and his words are spelled out in subtitles.

What he says in his own raspy, electronically distorted voice is supplemented by narration — read by his son, Jack — that reflects on the ups and downs of a career that was never quite what he wanted it to be. Kilmer muses on the way acting crosses and blurs the boundary between reality and illusion, concluding that he’s spent most of his life “inside the illusion.”

A Juilliard graduate with a passionate sense of craft, he ascended to Hollywood in the less-than-golden age of the 1980s. His best-known roles are probably still Iceman, the jaunty, square-jawed heavy in “Top Gun,” and Batman, whose suit he wore, not very comfortably, in between Michael Keaton and George Clooney. When Kilmer visits Comic-Con, the autograph seekers want him to sign memorabilia from those movies. But to appreciate the full range of his talent, you are better off cuing up “The Doors,” “Tombstone” and of course “Heat,” in which he credibly holds his own alongside Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.

In outline, “Val” is a standard biographical documentary, tracing an arc from childhood through struggle, triumph and more struggle. We see Kilmer with his parents and brothers, hear about his marriage to the British actress Joanne Whalley and witness on-set and backstage shenanigans with the likes of Sean Penn, Tom Cruise and Marlon Brando.

Conflicts with directors and castmates, and Kilmer’s tabloid-fueled reputation for “difficulty,” are mentioned in passing, but “Val” is neither a first-person confessional nor a journalistic investigation. It seems to arise, above all, from the desire of a sometimes reluctant celebrity and frequently underestimated artist to be understood. With a combination of wit, sincerity, self-awareness, and the narcissism that is both a requirement and a pitfall of his profession, Kilmer succeeds in explaining himself, or at least convincing us that we never really knew him before.

Rated R. Rough language. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. In theaters.

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