14 Best Val Kilmer Movies Every Fan Should Re-watch

A24 and Amazon Prime’s “Val,” a documentary about actor Val Kilmer’s life and career, was released in July 2021. The movie explores the issues and tragedies that shape Kilmer as an actor and is equal parts behind-the-scenes look at Val Kilmer movies and autobiography. The presence of Jack Kilmer, who just lost his voice due to throat cancer, as the narrator makes this warm and moving documentary even more impactful. Hearing the younger Kilmer read the narration feels uncannily like going back in time.

But even while “Val” highlights Kilmer’s notoriety and acting style as a classically trained actor, his body of work is shockingly underrepresented in the movie. The truth is that Val Kilmer has consistently laboured for more than three decades to create some of the best performances of his era, despite his challenging reputation. Who better to choose the top films for your upcoming actor-themed marathon than an unabashed fan of Val Kilmer? If you just remember one thing from this list, remember this: Val Edward Kilmer is the best at portraying a historical junkie.

Heat

What possibly could be added to what has already been written about Michael Mann’s “Heat”? The movie has served as the inspiration for innumerable articles and retrospectives, in addition to serving as the basis for a podcast that covered the entire movie in 166 episodes. Heck, Mann himself made an appearance for the podcast’s series finale, adding weight to the final 60 seconds of his venerable movie. Therefore, in the unlikely event that you are reading a list of Val Kilmer’s top performances and haven’t seen “Heat,” you should really, like, watch that.

But let’s pause for a second to recognise the film’s standout scene. The ending scene between Kilmer’s Chris Shiherlis and Ashley Judd’s Charlene Shiherlis always crushes my heart, despite the movie being praised as a showcase for stars Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. The film’s guiding principle is put to the ultimate test at that very moment, when Charlene gives the signal and Chris drives off in a stupor. A pair of wordless facial gestures in a movie with a lot of intense acting drive the dagger down the furthest.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

It wouldn’t be absurd to claim that Val Kilmer was the most reliable choice on the “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” set, even without the benefit of hindsight. Hollywood screenwriter Shane Black has been writing screenplays for almost ten years, but he had never directed before. The majority of Hollywood studios had Robert Downey Jr. on their “blacklist” since he was still in recovery from addiction. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was therefore produced by and with talent who had nothing to lose, which is possibly one of the reasons why it is so incredibly brilliant.

The end result is a witty buddy comedy and neo-noir that explores the artificiality of the movie business. Since both actors speak too quickly, neither Kilmer nor Downey can be considered the comedy relief. Instead, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” gives the performers the chance to play off of one another brilliantly, with Downey playing the fool and Kilmer taking on a tired air that solidifies the character. Even though Black’s script is hysterically amusing, the chemistry between the two stars keeps the film moving forward. Check out the DVD commentary if you have a physical copy of the movie for an additional layer of entertainment.

MacGruber

A feature-length version of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch might not be the best course of action if your career is precariously poised between the work of prestige directors and direct-to-video schlock. But “MacGruber” isn’t your typical “Saturday Night Live” parody. “MacGruber” is a cult favourite, and like so many other films by Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer—two-thirds of the Lonely Island team—it took viewers a decade to realise the hilarity that was right in front of them.

As Dieter Von Cunth, an armaments dealer and the antagonist of Will Forte’s eponymous character, Kilmer plays a rare villain in the movie. Despite having a number of humorous roles under his credit, Kilmer has stated that he was motivated to take on “MacGruber” because it would give him the chance to break back into comedy after years of tragedies. He admitted to AMC in 2010 that it was “weirdly difficult to acquire a comedy if you’re serious actor.” They forbid you. Kilmer is a pretty good comedian, straight man or not, and “MacGruber” was a nice reminder for anyone who had forgotten the wide humour of “Top Secret!” and “Real Genius.”

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Real Genius

Not every enjoyable 1980s comedy was helmed by John Hughes. While Gabriel Jarret, then a teenager, played the lead character in Martha Coolidge’s 1985 comedy “Real Genius,” a large portion of the film centres on the treacherous passage from childhood to adulthood. Chris Knight, a senior at Pacific Tech played by Kilmer, is aware that his brilliance might lead him down a couple professional avenues that he is not interested in following. Why would he, too? The adults in the “Real Genius” universe are either dishonest or murderous.

Knight is the kind of person that appears on posters in high school dorm rooms all around the world. Knight made Kilmer into the Hollywood idol he never wanted to be by being clever, original, and possessing an anti-authority attitude that puts John Cusack’s characters to shame. “Real Genius” continues to be a classic movie about the ethical weight of technology and the crushing expectations of early success because it never veers too far into the sex comedy or nerd stereotypes that may have otherwise dated it. Oh, and by the way, the Val Kilmer website does indeed sell all of Knight’s amazing t-shirts.

Red Planet

The best option for a filmmaker when it comes to science fiction is to be the most accomplished director of their generation. But you can also do much worse than a solid, pulpy B-movie if you are not Stanley Kubrick and do not have a “2001: A Space Odyssey” up your sleeve. The year “Red Planet” was released, Brian De Palma’s “Mission to Mars,” an extraordinarily genuine movie about extraterrestrial exploration and the beginnings of life on Earth, also came out in theatres. In contrast, the thriller “Red Planet” is about a crashed ship and a murderous robot. Only one of them is resilient.

Kilmer plays Robby Gallagher, an engineer and “space janitor” who gets stuck on Mars when a terraforming mission goes awry. However, the filmmakers choose to go for pulpy horrors rather than compromise the science, pitting the crash survivors against a malfunctioning AI. Roger Ebert linked “Red Planet” to some of his favourite science fiction films from the 1950s in his review of the film, noting his enjoyment of films about scientists “trying to think their way out of a box that grows smaller every minute.” Fun can often outlast intelligence when it comes to durability.

Spartan

Even though Kilmer is often thought of as a ’90s movie star, some of his most intriguing work was not produced until after he had already started to disappear from the public eye. At that time, Kilmer collaborated with filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola (“Twist”), Werner Herzog (“Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”), and David Mamet, the latter of whom selected Kilmer for his acclaimed political thriller “Spartan.” Unless you count Kilmer’s performance in Harmony Korine’s piece of “The Fourth Dimension,” which I most definitely do (it’s currently streaming in its entirety on VICE’s YouTube channel, by the way), one might argue that “Spartan” was the last truly outstanding leading man performance Kilmer gave.

“Spartan” runs as a procedural thriller for the majority of the first hour, offering viewers an inside look at the extent the Secret Service will go to in order to locate a member of the president’s family. Since Kilmer is a disciplined character, seeing him respond to uncertain situations without hesitation amplifies the already excellent script. This provides some of Kilmer’s best moments. Mamet and Kilmer collaborate to provide “the fullest post-9/11 treatment of retribution thus far,” according to film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, as the plot shifts to paranoia and conspiracy.

The Doors

Kilmer has shown genuine talent over the course of his career in playing legendary roles that straddle commercial and critical success. In “The Doors,” Jim Morrison is one such figure. It’s difficult to picture another performer putting this much work into a part and failing to become a superstar who can punch their own ticket wherever they like. However, for Kilmer, this is merely one of a small number of such parts, any of which most actors would consider themselves fortunate to have.

The stardom, the collapse, and the addictions that surfaced along the road are all conventional musical biopic material in “The Doors,” yet Oliver Stone fails to delve deeply into the relationships of many of the players. However, Kilmer himself is a tornado, embodying Morrison in a variety of settings with startling physical and verbal precision. The music is where “The Doors” really excels; the scale and calibre of these in-movie performances are so dynamic that it frequently appears as though Stone used real concert footage in his narrative feature. The Doors” is a genuinely unique movie once the songs begin.

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The Ghost and the Darkness

With all due respect to the 1970s, the late 1990s were a heyday for horror movies with an animal theme. In a short period of time, audiences were given to movies like “Anaconda,” “Deep Blue Sea,” “Bats,” and “Lake Placid,” yet none of those productions can match the lavish experience of Stephen Hopkins’ “The Ghost and the Darkness.” “The Ghost and the Darkness,” a Gale Anne Hurd production with Vilmos Zsigmond, an Academy Award-winning cinematographer, treads the line between high-end studio entertainment and classic creature features. A winning mix, indeed.

Kilmer performs the role of John Patterson, a military engineer ordered to Kenya to finish building a problematic bridge. Patterson steps up to defend his coworkers when a couple of lions start to attack the construction group. Based on actual events, where it is thought that the Tsavo man-eaters killed up to 135 people, “The Ghost and the Darkness” made excellent use of its on-location shot and managed to get some real jump scares out of its superb animal performers. It’s not a leap to argue that this is the horror movie version of A24 from the mid-1990s. Just keep in mind to overlook Kilmer’s erratic Irish accent.

The Saint

There is no denying that the filming of “Batman & Robin” did cause issues for Kilmer’s work on “The Saint,” despite claims to the contrary. Kilmer turned down a second “Batman” movie for many reasons, some of which have been disputed over time. Who can blame Kilmer, then, if history decides to support the idea that he preferred “The Saint” to “Batman & Robin”? Why not choose the big-budget Hollywood movie where you get to portray 15 distinct characters rather than one stiffly in a rubber suit if you’re going to join the cast?

Modern critics frequently link “The Saint” to Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” films because both have intricate heists and lots of disguises, but “GoldenEye,” Martin Campbell’s expansive reinvention of the Bond franchise, might be a better analogy. This person is portraying the affable franchise lead; they are not a method actor. Kilmer’s artificial teeth and poor accent might have been evidence that the Serious ArtistTM wasn’t that serious after all. Also, contrast “The Saint” with “GoldenEye” and let me know which has aged better.

The Salton Sea

If the late 1990s were the decade of the Tarantino-inspired, the early 2000s belonged to the Guy Ritchie-inspired. The debut feature of inexperienced director D.J. Caruso, “The Salton Sea,” is merely an Americanized version of “Snatch,” but thanks to a strong supporting cast, it never seems less than fascinating. You might be shocked to discover how nicely “The Salton Sea” has aged if you include Kilmer in the form we now recognise as his best—strung out and dejected.

Kilmer plays Danny Parker in the movie, a criminal informant who uses his addictions to pull off a number of high-profile busts. Or does he portray Tom Van Allen, a sad widower who is overcome with the desire for retribution? Regardless, Park-slash-Van Allen finds himself dependent on ruthless drug dealer Pooh-Bear (Vincent D’Onofrio), who makes a remarkable performance, and owing Jimmy (Peter Sarsgaard), his one genuine friend. The Salton Sea,” which was first intended to be a showcase for character actors and nonlinear narrative, is ultimately a movie about the true friendships you may discover in life, even when you’re at your lowest point.

Top Gun


It might come as a surprise to find that Kilmer only took on the part of “Iceman” Kazansky due to contractual responsibilities given how many doors “Top Gun” opened for him. But from “Val,” which includes behind-the-scenes material from numerous of his productions, that was one of the main lessons learned. Therefore, it could be preferable to be lucky than good. Kilmer’s performance as Iceman is far from his best, but it is the one that exudes potential and future star power. When Tom Cruise was still human enough to share the screen with anyone other than his own stunts, he was a wonderfully calibrated foible for the actor.

You may be familiar with the scenes from “Top Gun,” such as volleyball on the beach and teeth-snapping in the locker room, but its effectiveness as an action film may have been overshadowed by its cultural impact. With movies like “Days of Thunder” and “The Fan,” Tony Scott would go on to establish himself as the maximalist equivalent of his brother Ridley, but “Top Gun” continues to stand out among his tremendous career. And with a sequel in the works (and a Kilmer cameo rumoured), we might get to see Iceman ride one final time before everything is said and done.

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Top Secret!

Kilmer said that he spent months learning the guitar only to be advised not to play seriously because it made for a funnier humour in “Val,” where he described “Top Secret!” as a difficult transition from playing in theatre to acting in films. But what does he really know? Just the actor, really. For the rest of us, “Top Secret!” is a hilarious comedy that rivals “Airplane!” and the “The Naked Gun” series of movies. Its inclusion on the list is justified by the bookshelf gag alone, a whole sequence of which was reverse-filmed and played straight in every way.

That success owes a great deal to Kilmer’s wide-eyed rock sensation Nick Rivers. Kilmer sang every song on the soundtrack, much like he did as Jim Morrison in “The Doors” a few years later, and he plays a flawlessly sincere (and endearingly generic) hero in each of the film’s thousands of jokes. When viewed with the film “Real Genius” from the year after, “Top Secret!” demonstrates Kilmer’s skill as both the straight man and the class clown. And after the credits have finished, I dare you not to hum “How Silly Can You Get?”

Tombstone

The cast of “Tombstone” is essentially the movie equivalent of the platonic ideal for someone who grew up watching 1980s and 1990s action flicks. And part of the appeal is that it shouldn’t exist; according to all accounts, Kurt Russell finished this one off almost by himself, rewriting the script and even taking over as the film’s primary director for the majority of the running time when George P. Cosmatos, the replacement, was unable to connect with the cast and crew. It’s practically a marvel that “Tombstone” manages to be good, while being somewhat traditional by western standards.

But Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc Holliday, which dwarfs everything and everyone in its orbit, is far more impressive than this miracle (and only relinquishes the spotlight in the moments when Kilmer is offscreen). Kilmer has frequently discussed how his physicality and accent, a long-gone Southern vernacular, impacted each other. It is a unique performance in which each choice seems to enhance the persona on screen. One simply needs to visit Kilmer’s website to realise how fully the actor has embraced “Tombstone” as a part of his legacy. Holliday also appears to be the unusual case in which an actor’s fandom is focused on some of his favourite work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wonderland

The only commonality in Kilmer’s extremely diverse array of work is his preference for biographies. The actor is never better than when asked to portray a historical character; from Jim Morrison to Mark Twain, Kilmer seems to enjoy opportunities to fill the roles held by others (especially when that person struggled with the demons of addiction). Given this, it’s unexpected that Kilmer’s portrayal of adult film star John Holmes in “Wonderland” is so frequently disregarded. It is a compelling story of stardom gone wrong, which is also Hollywood’s preferred subject matter for stories.

“Wonderland” centres on Holmes, who was once one of the most known, well, “faces” in adult cinema, as he assists in the planning of a drug-fueled heist, which is set against the backdrop of the 1981 Laurel Canyon murders. However, it is Kilmer’s acting that keeps the whole movie together. Director James Cox shoots the movie from the perspectives of the police, the survivors, and even the wife and lover whom Holmes so frequently assaults. Holmes is a man so adept at manipulation in his hands that he believes his own falsehoods. The ensuing performance, which features equal parts charisma and cowardice performed in pure, late-disco magnificence, is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Kilmer’s career.

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