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'Val' offers an intimate glimpse into the life and times of Val Kilmer

From playing Jim Morrison to fighting cancer and winning, albeit with a toll, the documentary poignantly celebrates the actor's whirlwind life.
Credit: Amazon Studios

ST. LOUIS — Do we really know an actor, or do the movies they are in tell that story for us?

Many people know Val Kilmer by three notable roles: Iceman, Doc Holliday, and Batman. But what the new documentary, "Val," chronicling 40 years of camcorder footage shot by Kilmer himself, shows you is that there was much more to him than just action/cut, takes, and on-set drama.

What we find out in Ting Poo and Leo Scott's film is the mind behind the actor; the things that made him tick, his childhood and adulthood in New Mexico, and how his first love wasn't theater or the movies, but B-roll home movies made with his two brothers, Wesley and Mark, when they were kids.

This intimate documentary also shines a big light on Kilmer's life these days, including a slow but sure recovery from throat cancer, something that took away his voice--but couldn't take out much of the man's soul.

As "Val" affectingly puts it, there's real life and the illusion that the movies can produce. He liked to spend most of his time stuck in that seductive illusion, searching for creativity and the reasons behind it. A journey that started way back as a kid in Chatsworth, Los Angeles, including the old Roy Rogers farm--which his dad bought, along with several other properties.

Making movies with his brothers connects to the present day, where he spends a lot of time with his son, Jack, and daughter, Mercedes. It's Jack who narrates most of his dad's story here from behind a microphone, an eloquent touch that only gets better when the son talks about his dad's role in "Tombstone," jokingly stunned when he finds out the wise-cracking best friend of Wyatt Earp was a dentist first.

Credit: Amazon Studios

"Val" is stuffed with behind the scenes footage, with "Batman Forever," and the very troubled shoot of "The Island of Dr. Moreau" getting the bulk of the screen time. One of the film's juiciest qualities is the footage revealing how unapologetic Kilmer was and still is about the experiences of making big movies. While willingly admitting that he wasn't easy to work with, Kilmer admits his intentions were to make the best film possible.

If you think this is a two-hour glad-handing experience by the 61-year-old actor, think again. He talks extensively about the trials and tribulations that accompany movie stardom, especially the role of the Caped Crusader and how it looks from the inside of the costume. How he couldn't hear at all or turn his head wearing the outfit, and how kids want to be Batman more than simply PLAY him in a movie.

Ever the wordsmith and honest eye, Kilmer talks about making "Heat" with Michael Mann, saying it felt like shooting an indie film after coming directly from the "Batman Forever" set. Those little ruminations are common in the 108 minute feature.

It's that particularly blunt blend of honesty and wistful explanations, along with a heavy dash of joker mentality, that sets this documentary apart. By the end, I felt closer to Kilmer and understood his intentions. Like Heath Ledger, who immortalized the Joker role, he didn't care for the big bang glamour of Hollywood popcorn blockbusters. He was after something deeper than a gimmick and it's something he paid for, according to Kilmer himself. But he never quivers about the direction his life took, as he has become more chill and thankful these days.

I never truly bought the "tough to work with on set" rumors. Aren't most of them that way-at least the ones searching for something deeper than a paycheck? Kilmer's fascination with the idea of movies as an artform makes "Val" incredibly fascinating throughout.

It was that belief of character building and "go for broke" mentality that made him different to work with, something that gets dissected here. Footage from the set of "Dr. Moreau" shows Kilmer and John Frankenheimer, the director brought in to finish the film, getting into a loud argument about the actor recording on the set. The truth is Kilmer rarely put the camera away during his life and career, which is how we got this revealing documentary.

Behind the Scenes footage lovers will get a kick out of Kilmer's collections shown off in "Val," including humorous interactions from the set of "Top Gun" and especially "The Doors," the 1991 film that launched his career. It's like a moving scrapbook of memories tied together with existential anecdotes, both real and sad, from the man himself.

We go from the tumultuous sets of older films to the present day Comic Con, where Kilmer can barely summon the energy to sign autographs. It's these saddening moments where one realizes his life today is much harder than any stubborn director, something the actor touches on late in the film. How actors are forced to celebrate their past achievements in order to continue working--something he's been confronted with due to cancer's toll.

If anything, "Val" will open a door to the mind of the actor that wasn't available before. If there's a takeaway to be carried away, it's that there's much more to a movie star than just the roles and the work. Once you sift through the highlights and the bittersweet path he's taken, you'll see how much fun he had doing it--something that he still finds joy in with his son today. In one of the film's most endearing moments, he dresses up with Jack as Batman and Robin out in the desert.

In a way, the movie humanizes the movie star by pulling back the curtain on his entire life, a move that garners respect. Val" is the deconstruction of the renegade actor, reluctant movie star, and endlessly inventive human being Kilmer was and still is to this day.