Kilmer’s reasons for turning down a second “Batman” movie have gotten contested with time — some claim he was fired from the sequel, Kilmer himself says that he hated the work – but there’s no denying that the production of “Batman & Robin” did present problems for Kilmer’s work on “The Saint.” So, if history decides to firm up the narrative that Kilmer chose “The Saint” over “Batman & Robin,” who can blame him? If you are going to hitch your wagon to a big-budget Hollywood film, why not pick the one where you get to play 15 different characters (as opposed to playing one, stiffly, in a rubber suit)?
Modern critics often compare “The Saint” to Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” movies — both feature complex heists and plenty of disguises — but the better comparison might be “GoldenEye,” Martin Campbell’s broad reboot of the Bond franchise. This is no method actor — this is someone playing the debonair franchise lead. Maybe, just maybe, Kilmer wearing plastic teeth and bad accents was proof that the Serious Artist™ was not so serious after all. Oh, and compare “The Saint” to “GoldenEye,” and tell me which one has aged better.
If your career is balanced precariously between the work of prestige filmmakers and direct-to-video schlock, a feature-length adaptation of a “Saturday Night Live” skit might not be the most obvious move. Then again, “MacGruber” is no run-of-the-mill “Saturday Night Live” adaptation. Like so many other films by Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer — two-thirds of the Lonely Island team — “MacGruber” is a cult classic, a series of gags so brilliantly stupid that it took audiences a decade to appreciate the comedy that was right in front of their eyes.
In the film, Kilmer takes a rare villainous turn as Dieter Von Cunth, an arms dealer and the arch-nemesis of Will Forte’s title character. Despite having several comedic turns under his belt, Kilmer has described his motivation for doing “MacGruber” as an opportunity to claw his way back into doing comedies after years of dramas. “It’s weirdly hard to get a comedy if you’re serious actor,” he told AMC in 2010. “They don’t let you.” For those who had forgotten the broad humor of “Top Secret!” and “Real Genius,” “MacGruber” was a welcome reminder that Kilmer is a pretty funny comedian, straight man or otherwise.
While many might describe Kilmer as a ’90s movie star, some of the actor’s most interesting work did not happen until he had already begun to fade from public view. It was then that Kilmer worked with directors like Francis Ford Coppola (“Twist”), Werner Herzog (“Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”), and David Mamet, the last of whom cast Kilmer in his standout political thriller “Spartan.” One could argue that “Spartan” was Kilmer’s last truly great leading man performance — that is, unless you count Kilmer’s performance in Harmony Korine’s segment of “The Fourth Dimension,” which I absolutely do (it’s now streaming in its entirety on VICE’s YouTube channel, by the way).
For much of the first hour, “Spartan” operates like a procedural thriller, giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the lengths the Secret Service will go to recover a member of the president’s family. This offers Kilmer some of his best moments; his character is one of discipline, and watching Kilmer adapt without question to uncertain scenarios elevates the already-sharp writing. When the movie pivots to paranoia and conspiracy, Mamet and Kilmer partner to deliver what film critic Matt Zoller Seitz once called “the richest post-9/11 treatment of revenge thus far.”
What could possibly be said about Michael Mann’s “Heat” that hasn’t already been covered? Not only has the film been the subject of countless essays and retrospectives, it was also the inspiration for a podcast that went minute-by-minute through the film over the course of 166 episodes. Hell, Mann himself appeared for the podcast’s series finale, weighing on the final 60 seconds of his classic film. So, yes, in the one-in-a-million odds that you are reading through a list of the best Val Kilmer performances and still haven’t seen “Heat,” you should probably, like, do that.
But let us take a second and acknowledge the best moment in the movie. While the film is hailed as a showcase for stars Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, it is the final moment between Kilmer’s Chris Shiherlis and Ashley Judd’s Charlene Shiherlis that always breaks my heart. In that moment, when Charlene gives the signal and Chris drives off in a daze, the film’s mantra is put to the ultimate test. In a movie with a lot of big emoting, it is a pair of silent facial expressions that drive the dagger down the deepest.
Even without the benefit of hindsight, it would not be outrageous to say that Val Kilmer was the safest bet on the set of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” Shane Black was a Hollywood screenwriter who had never directed before and was nearly a decade removed from his last produced screenplay. Meanwhile, Robert Downey Jr. was still a recovering addict who was blacklisted by most Hollywood studios. That makes “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” a film made by and with talent that had nothing left to lose, which is probably one of the reasons why it’s so damn good.
The result is a sharp neo-noir and buddy comedy that digs into the artificial nature of the film industry. Neither Kilmer nor Downey are truly the straight man; both actors talk too fast for one to be labeled the comedic relief. Instead, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” allows the actors to play off of each other to great effect, with Downey playing dumb and Kilmer adopting a world-weary air that locks in the character. Black’s script is wickedly funny, but the chemistry between the two leads makes the whole thing work. If you have a physical copy of the film, be sure to check out the DVD commentary for an extra layer of fun.
This content was originally published here.