An Ode to Val Kilmer
Watching the thoroughly mediocre Entourage is a depressing experience. But there are some occasions where one is rewarded for their patience. In this particular episode, the characters were looking for weed, which seems to have dried up because of a massive drought on the West Coast. The main character’s health nut vegan girlfriend knows a guy, a pot guru who has clean herbal stuff. They go to see him in this huge mansion, filled with plants. He’s got long grey hair, big Santa Claus beard, and almost has an odor to him. For a moment I just thought it was some no-name overplaying the hippie burnout, but then I recognized the voice and the face beneath all the phony facial hair. And it was Val Kilmer.
This is not a surprise as I would say near no one in Hollywood is willing to embarrass themselves more and has such an “I don’t give a fuck” aura. Perhaps that is why I can watch something idiotic, incomprehensible, and horrendously directed like The Saint and just laugh at what an awful performance Kilmer gives while dressed up in an array of disguises and wigs, such as a hotel cleaning lady. The silly accents he puts on are worthy of Monty Python, and while it is clear the role is beneath him, he manages to give his all without committing to it. In the large number of terrible large scale movies he’s been in, I sense that he’s such a prick, that he divorces himself from revealing his skill and making himself vulnerable. He has the single good moment in the remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau, doing a great impression of Brando, but the rest of the time, you’d be hard pressed to not see the smirk beneath everything.
With Top Secret, he was clearly out of his depth, but he didn’t impede the jokes and it remained funny anyway. I think he didn’t come into his own until Real Genius, because it was when he was allowed to let loose and be cocky and silly at the same time. It’s why I believe that he knew what was going in Top Gun even before Quentin Tarantino (in Sleep With Me) and Pauline Kael (who called it a “shiny homoerotic commercial”) made it public. Kilmer caught the subtext and played with it, watch the looks on his face especially in his scenes with Maverick, making it the most apparent, as opposed to the no doubt oblivious Tom Cruise.
These sorts of performances allow for him to concentrate on the really meaty material and commit fully to those roles like in The Doors and Tombstone and play transparent for the paycheck, like in Batman Forever (which always seemed intentional to me, so no one would make the mistake of trying to make him a slick, buttoned up, pretty boy action star again) and Red Planet.
You can see the different styles that Kilmer tries all in one place if you watch The Salton Sea, where he’s playing a bland widowed undercover cop, a narc junkie, women saving crusading martyr, or maybe he’s out for himself. Val shifts from scene to scene depending on the situation. It was probably written in a more simplistic fashion, and indeed the direction tries to overcompensate for the thinness of the screenplay by throwing far too many stylish “look at me shots” and time lapse photography, encouragements to let the actors like Vincent D’Onofrio go over the top with his wacky so-crazy-he’s-funny villain as well as mixing grossouts (the stealing the celebrity feces scene) with ha-ha violence which dulls the effectiveness of the low key noir it should have been. Again you can watch Kilmer overcome all of this by not letting anyone else steal the film from him as he adopts one new persona after another, amidst all the drug movie cliches and sappy attempts by the script to have us empathize with him. Pay careful attention to what is the best scene in the film, Glenn Plummer, high out of his mind trying to finish a drug deal (with Kilmer and his unintelligent friend) while he is distracted with suffocating his girlfriend underneath a mattress (we only see her flapping feet hanging over the edge). Kilmer still manages to make himself the center of the scene by underplaying the moment, and letting Plummer go in all kinds of directions, making threats with a spear gun and completely flipping out, while Val just waits for the storm to be over so he can get his fix.
Kilmer’s best role recently was not Wonderland (though he was the most interesting thing about the film, never trying to make John Holmes sympathetic, except to himself, and remaining the sleazebag asshole that he was), but the lead in David Mamet’s Spartan, which was sadly dumped, despite being the 2nd best movie of the year. His character doesn’t allow for bullshit, nor stupid questions or conversations, and he adopts the halting cadence and mannerisms of Mamet perfectly. The best thing about Spartan is one of the better things about Kilmer during interviews, he assumes you’re smart enough to follow his train of thought, and he doesn’t feel the need to treat you like a child, unless you deserve to be talked down to. Spartan avoids the tedious exposition that all Hollywood movies rely on, where characters have to fill each other on information that they would already know and not naturally say to each other, but fears that the audience won’t.
Rewatching The Island of Dr. Moreau, I’d forgotten about the hilarious scene where Kilmer entices David Thewlis to kiss the cute little wabbit, because it’s so cute, right before he snaps its neck, amusing me, and appalling Thewlis.
In fact, the whole movie is so much worse than I remembered, so Kilmer sets about to amuse himself, even going as far as to ridicule his own dramatic pauses. Check out the protracted explanation of Moreau to Thewlis, complete with his continuous twirling of a purple flower that he had just used to scare Fairuza Balk away, which includes Kilmer looking up and pausing for the thunder and lightning to kick in, amidst his monologue, so he can continue.