Val Kilmer is an interesting actor. Sometimes it seems that what he is most often remembered for is not his laser-like intensity, or the never fully appreciated depth of pathos that he could bring to a character, but instead the stories and accounts of his ‘difficulties’ on set, his mercurial temper and odd demands. And that’s a bit unfair, really. Sure, the reputation tarring is not nearly quite as bad as the type that follows around those performers who are deemed difficult and who have the added audacity to be female, but nevertheless: Unfair is unfair. Now that we are at a healthier distance from the stench of the on-set gossip of his more tempestuous years, it’s good to remember that Val Kilmer has racked up a fairly sizeable set of iconic roles over the course of his career. It’s easy to forget sometimes, mostly thanks to the relative quiet of his latter years, but it’s quite an impressive sight once you see them listed alongside each other. It proves difficult, in fact, to single out the best performance of the bunch. Certainly it is too much of a task for one person alone, and so—inspired by my illustrious colleague Lord Castleton’s Best Olivia poll—I thought it about time to put this one to bed.
With the power of democracy.
So I ask this question of you today, great and enlightened Pajiba readership:
Which Val Kilmer is Best Val Kilmer?
Is it his Madmartigan in Willow, George Lucas’ silly fantasy fluff, in which Los Angeles native Kilmer plays a greasy rogue adventurer who we first meet swinging in a cage, dangerous and sneering and hostile, but who eventually and reluctantly takes up the mantle of heroism that fate bestows upon him?
Willow Kilmer is early Kilmer, but it’s potent Kilmer. A generic piece of well-intentioned nonsense, his sweaty renegade is by far the best part of Willow. And those braids are clearly the best part of him.
Or will our Best Kilmer be found in Tombstone?
The early 90’s Western throwback Tombstone is arguably one of Kilmer’s all round strongest performances. It’s certainly his most fun one, his Doc Holliday a mass of acting tics and strangely rhythmic delivery, blanched face forever coated in sweat thanks to the tuberculosis advancing rapidly through his body, yet which has done nothing to slow his hand or dull his humour. Tombstone is a movie of some excellent parts which nevertheless never quite coalesces into a meaningful whole, but Kilmer’s Doc Holliday? He’s the real deal.
Fun, irrelevant fact: Tombstone features a pudgy Billy Bob Thornton in a minor role. Here he is being intimidated by a moustache that’s wearing a Kurt Russell:
Perhaps you lot will favour Baby Val as Best Val. Will Real Genius and his Chris Knight take home the prize?
Or Oliver Stone’s ‘Hey, Doesn’t This Guy Kinda Look Like This Other Guy’ pitch for The Doors?
To be fair, he did really look like that other guy. And sometimes, that’s all you need for a movie.
Batman Forever happened. You remember that? I always forget. I’m gonna forget as soon as I finish writing this as a matter of fact, but it definitely did happen. And Val Kilmer was in it. Maybe his Batman/Bruce Wayne is your Best Kilmer. If so, that’s fine. We don’t judge here.
Maybe it’s True Romance Kilmer that does it for you? Kilmer is barely in this film. His presence is not even meant to be remarked upon, and it’s usually only upon reading a trivia list somewhere on the internet that people realise that it is indeed Kilmer playing the ghost of Elvis who comes to offer advice and support to Christian Slater in his moment of doubt. Nevertheless, somehow, with almost nothing to work with, Kilmer nails it here.
Orrrrrrrrrrrrrr will it be Top Gun!
Top Gun is an awful, awful movie that a lot of very misguided people think they like. They are all wrong and we should pity them, but not look down on them. Feed them cereal and pat them on the head. Be nice to them. Kilmer’s Iceman and his angrily suppressed longing for Tom Cruise’s Maverick is probably the best thing about Top Gun.
Apart from, that is, that dude on the right there:
On the other end of the scale from Top Gun is Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a glorious creation. From the mind of writer-director Shane Black, this post-postmodern, metatextual, gleefully witty neo-noir gives us by far the finest Latter Day Kilmer performance, and it is one that can fairly claim to stand alongside his all-time greatest roles.
Kilmer’s private eye, Gay Perry, is arch, sarcastic, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He is the perfect foil to Robert Downey Jrs’ bungling Harry Lockhart, and casting him in the role was a stroke of pure genius. Having heterosexual actors portray gay characters is quite tiring, and shows a lack of imagination, but here Kilmer is so good that it’s easier to forgive. Really, it’s a goddamn travesty that the years since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang haven’t been awash with glorious Kilmer roles like this. Or at least a Gay Perry TV Show.
Alongside the Before Trilogy, Heat is my favourite movie of all time. It is cinematic perfection, a tale of cops and robbers told invested with an obsessive attention to realist detail, a scope worthy of operatic tragedy, and told with a master’s formal skill set. It is absolutely brimming with top notch performances, on both sides of the law. On the wrong side of it, and informal second in command to Robert De Niro’s master criminal Neil McCauley, is Val Kilmer’s Chris Shiherlis.
Damaged and cripplingly addicted to gambling, Shiherlis nevertheless always manages to focus when a job is at hand, never failing to bring to McCauley’s crew the uber-professionalism that his boss demands. Whether he’s cracking a safe, coolly picking up explosives, or providing a one-man volley of covering fire against a swarm of police (including that textbook three point reload under fire), Kilmer sells Shiherlis as a fully rounded character, professional competency and personal strife all wrapped into one.
All strong contenders for the title of Best Kilmer, I’m sure you’ll agree. It would however be remiss of me to finish this list here, without first also submitting for your consideration Chilled Val Just Chilling at a Lakers Game
Val Kilmer has been battling cancer for the past two years. We wish him and his family all the best and we hope to see him laughing at a good many more basketball games to come.
And so, what’s it gonna be?
(Header image and others courtesy of Getty Images)