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“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Actually much of Val Kilmer’s works hold up very well. He is almost always the best thing in any of his movies in a 40-plus-year career. Like Iceman in “Top Gun” (1986) — a role he will reprise in the upcoming sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick.” He was Jim Morrison, in “The Doors” (1991). He made the phrase “I’ll be your huckleberry” a meme for the ages as Doc Holliday, in “Tombstone” (1993); and he held his own in a cast that included Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Michael Mann’s “Heat” (1995).


True, in Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” (2009) he is upstaged by an iguana on Nicolas Cage’s desk. On the other hand I thought he was terrific in “Kill Me Again,”(1989), a film that I am perhaps alone in thinking was underrated. But probably all cinephiles have a Val Kilmer film they think they are alone in believing underrated.

But as far as looks go, he no longer is the Adonis he once was. That realization hits hard early on in Leo Scott and Ting Poo’s “Val,” a fascinating and incantatory 108-minute biographical collage gleaned from thousands of hours of video that Kilmer took of his life from childhood to the present day. One can still see the demi-god in the now 61-year-old face, worn by age and intensity and a bout with throat cancer that resulted in a tracheotomy. He looks like a Francis Bacon portrait of himself in his prime, and he can barely speak through the valve in his throat. “I feel a lot better than I sound,” he croaks.

From left: Rick Rossovich, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, and Tom Cruise in "Top Gun."
From left: Rick Rossovich, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, and Tom Cruise in "Top Gun."Paramount Pictures

And why shouldn’t he? He lives next door to his “genius daughter,” Mercedes — there is a cute scene in which he tells her on the phone he will pick her up and then the two are seen exiting from adjacent doors beaming at each other. And his son Jack provides the voice-over narrative for the film — before you see him at the microphone you’d swear it was a young Val Kilmer speaking the words.


His story is illustrated by a kaleidoscopic montage of past and present images, like a life seen in the seconds before dying, and begins with an idyllic-ish childhood in Los Angeles (his father bought the Roy Rogers ranch for the kids to romp in). His younger brother Wesley was the genius in the family and as a kid he would make 16mm films, parodies of hits like “Jaws” (1975), that Val and his other brother, Mark, would star in (Val makes a mean Quint). But Wesley died, at 15, and that loss would shadow Kilmer’s life.

Juilliard followed, then the stage, early roles in toss-away films, and the breakthrough of “Top Gun.” Maybe it was during “The Doors” that he developed a reputation for being eccentric, even difficult. While making that film he stayed in character as Jim Morrison for a year, wearing the same leather pants the whole time and playing “The End” over and over, which, Kilmer admits, made his then-wife, Joanne Whalley, miserable.

For Joel Schumacher, this reputation for being difficult was confirmed when he directed Kilmer as the Caped Crusader, in “Batman Forever” (1995). Kilmer felt straitjacketed by the brutally restrictive and suffocating Batman suit, a metaphor perhaps for the limitations of being typecast as an action hero. Whatever the reason, Schumacher vowed never to work with him again, declaring him “psychotic.”


Val Kilmer, early in his career, as seen in "Val."
Val Kilmer, early in his career, as seen in "Val." A24 via AP

The videotapes also include candid moments such as an over-the-top audition tape Kilmer sent to Stanley Kubrick for a part in “Full Metal Jacket” (1987), which he didn’t get; him rehearsing Hamlet’s line “O that this too too solid flesh would melt” numerous times and never quite nailing it; and backstage glimpses of Brando in the carnivalesque debacle of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” (1996). Kilmer approaches Brando with his camera as the corpulent genius basks in a hammock the size of a schooner’s mainsail. Kilmer tries to get him to say something. “Push,” says Brando.

The present-day footage has its humorous moments, too, bittersweet though they may be. At a fan convention he autographs “Top Gun” posters, VHS tapes, and T-shirts, with every fan requesting the salutation “You can be my wingman.” The session is interrupted when Kilmer has to vomit in a barrel and is taken away in a wheelchair with a blanket over his head. After a similar fan event for “Tombstone” he gasps out, “Sometimes . . . I feel really bad . . . about having to fly around the country. I don’t look great and am basically selling my old self, my old career.”

At the beginning of the film Kilmer says that one theme he wanted to explore in the documentary is “the place where [I] end and the character begins.” He may have found that place at last, and it is his best performance yet.


“Val” is screening at the Kendall Square Cinema and will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video beginning Aug. 6. Go to www.landmarktheatres.com/boston and www.amazon.com/Val-Kilmer/dp/B09888KKZK.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.