Once upon a time, Val Kilmer’s individual look – defined by a little Swedish blood from his mother’s side – had hearts pumping. Those looks, along with his arrogant, edgy attitude and acting style, helped him clinch plenty of complimentary roles during the 80s and early-90s. Films like Top Secret, Top Gun, Willow and my personal favourite Real Genius were pushing him toward a stellar career back then, and his star was steadily rising.
But Kilmer came down from a serious high of Heat and Tombstone in the mid-90s when he signed on to the notorious clusterfuck that was The Island Of Dr. Moreau, and only recently has the part he played in its disastrous production come to light.
In the amazing 2014 documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey Of Richard Stanley’s Island Of Dr Moreau (well worth a watch), it’s not-so-delicately explained that Kilmer replaced Bruce Willis on the film at the last minute and, almost immediately, demanded a 40% reduction in his time on set. Not only that, his behaviour while he was on set was appalling. News of his obnoxiousness and hostile run-ins with the director, his alleged bullying of the cast and Australian crew and a consistent refusal to follow the script was making its way back to the studio – and Hollywood in general. This chain reaction forced a post-Moreau Kilmer to start treading ‘bad rep’ quicksand almost immediately and his star began to fade.
Fast-forward to 2005, and Kilmer found himself hitting it out of the park as Gay Perry in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang alongside Robert Downey Jr., for whom Iron Man was still a few years away. Both actors were on top form and, under the direction of Shane Black, they formed a kind of Black Ops trio of middle aged career men seeking to bury their bad reputations for good and prove that they had what it took to bounce back onto the A-list.
Downey Jr.? Well, we know how that turned out; and Black was carried along to helm arguably the best MCU film, 2013’s Iron Man 3 (or “Kiss Kiss Clang Clang” as Edgar Wright so eloquently nailed it) – but Kilmer failed to capitalise on the forgiving good will of Hollywood and the audiences that warmed to him.
So what happened? Was Kilmer’s bad behaviour not entirely a thing of the past? Had he pissed off the wrong person at some point? Were the right projects just not there for him? It’s hard to say, and maybe only Kilmer knows for sure.
My curiosity, as usual, got the better of me – so I watched just seven of his post-Kiss Kiss straight-to-DVD films in search of a gem…
Moscow Zero (2006)
IMDb: 3.1, Rotten Tomatoes: 6%
“The gates to the underworld have been opened,” states the DVD cover ominously below both a hellish Russian skyline and beside the floating heads of both Kilmer and Vincent Gallo, a man that could surely go toe-to-toe with Kilmer when it comes to pissing off the critical glitterati. After following up his beloved directorial debut Buffalo ’66 with a languid road trip movie that culminated in him getting his dick out and sticking it in Chloe Sevigny’s mouth while audiences looked on agape, it’s fair to say that Gallo’s subsequent career hasn’t been like that of a majestic eagle.
Here, Gallo plays a priest who enters the catacombs below Moscow – where the dead are rumoured to have arisen – searching for a lost archaeologist friend. He strikes a deal with Hell’s gatekeeper (Kilmer) to continue his mission, but Kilmer isn’t quite what he seems and neither is anything else.
Like the great-great-great-grandchild of an illicit tryst between Mann’s The Keep and Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, the movie looks quite good. It’s dark and gloomy without being visually problematic during the underground portion, and there’s a fantastically portentous atmosphere running throughout. But overall, the film becomes much like a walk in the catacombs themselves: directionless, meandering and completely lost in the throes of trying to find meaning in its own concept.
IMDb: 4.6, Rotten Tomatoes: N/A
Conspiracy is such an odd little film. Kilmer stars as an ex-Marine hoping to start a new life after being wounded in Iraq (apropos of nothing, he looks 30 years too old to be a Marine, but we’ll let it slide). Invited by his friend to come and help out with the day-to-day upkeep of his Arizona ranch, Kilmer heads off to the Podunk town in good faith, but when he arrives his friend and his family have mysteriously vanished, and he sets out to avenge their ill treatment by systematically taking down every bad guy running the show.
Director Adam Marcus, who has gone on to do basically nothing, wields his lenses unsurely and the film isn’t entirely steady in its tone – falling somewhere between a glimpse of an old school spaghetti western and a dash of U Turn, if U Turn was a PG but somehow still had loads of violence and swearing in it.
Kilmer is fine and his scenes with fan favourite Gary Cole are fun to watch, but sadly it leaves no lasting impression at all.
Columbus Day (2008)
IMDb: 5.5, Rotten Tomatoes: N/A
In Columbus Day, Kilmer is Jon – a career criminal who has just pulled off the biggest heist of his life and is racing to rid himself of the merchandise so that he can retire to Florida and be done with a life of crime.
The film, such as it is, acts as a sort of proto-Locke. Kilmer rather inexplicably hangs around in a park for most of the duration making calls to the various people in his life. There’s the girlfriend who has become way too much hassle, the ex-wife who he badly wants to get back, the daughter he virtually abandoned for darker deeds, fellow heist partners and of course the very bad man who will meet him at some point so that he can unload the goods. Everyone gets meaningful phone calls while he expertly evades the cops and strikes up a sweet relationship with a young boy who he finds hanging around the park – and who quickly cottons on to his situation.
I don’t have a lot of bad things to say about Columbus Day. It’s not great, and the 80s-leaning score is distracting, but Kilmer’s interactions throughout the film are solid and his friendship with the boy in the park is delicately handled. Above all else, there’s no sense of inevitability to the story and the end came as something of a surprise, although not a particularly good one. I couldn’t recommend it on the whole, but I’ve sat through a lot worse for these pieces. A lot worse.
IMDb: 7.5, Rotten Tomatoes: 59%
Felon is far and away the best film I’ve watched for this series and its IMDb score reflects that entirely. At no point was I expecting to thoroughly enjoy a prison film starring Stephen Dorff when I sat down to watch it late on a Friday night, but here we are – and if I could magically replace all the years I slumped through Prison Break with repeated viewings of Felon, I doubt I’d have much to complain about.
Dorff plays Wade Porter, a successful businessman who loses everything after he confronts a burglar running out of his home in the middle of the night. With one bonk to the back of the robber’s head, he finds himself sent down for involuntary manslaughter and pushed into sharing a cell with an infamous mass murderer (Kilmer).
The story, however, merely evolves from that series of events when Dorff realises that the prison is being run under its own laws – a place where inmates are pitted against each other in fights to the death. The always fantastic Harold Perrineau (Michael from Lost) plays the head prison guard, ruling over the other employees with an iron fist and dishing out brutal beatings to those who refuse to play his game. It seems that Dorff is going to need help if he wants to survive his whole sentence, and psychotic cellmate Kilmer (I won’t spoil his backstory for you; suffice to say that it is fantastically deranged) is his only hope.
Felon is a bloody good watch and both directed and edited cleanly. Is it a classic of our time? Well no, but for the first time I can recommend a film from one of these lists without hesitation.
Streets Of Blood (2009)
IMDb: 4.4, Rotten Tomatoes: 40%
The first thing I noticed when I picked up the DVD of Streets Of Blood was that it was directed by Charles Winkler, the son of famed producer Irwin Winkler and man behind the woeful remake slash reboot slash something The Net 2.0. The second thing happened to be that Kilmer’s co-star in the film was none other than rapper-turned-actor 50 Cent. Having seen Mr Cent in a fair few movies now, I can confidently say that he is not a perfect fit for the acting profession.
In Streets Of Blood, Kilmer and 50 bond during Hurricane Katrina when they both kill a desperate, gun-wielding man in self-defence. Kilmer’s a cop who’s found that his partner sadly drowned in the flood and 50’s also a cop whose partner took off when the water started rising. Ladies and gentleman, we have ourselves a buddy cop movie – albeit possibly the most uneven one in history.
The plot gets murkier and less well-handled from there, as Kilmer and 50 delve into the virtual lawlessness of post-Katrina New Orleans and the film relentlessly cuts from the on-going story to police therapist Sharon Stone interviewing the main players, hoping to uncover the dark secrets each of them hold about each other.
The direction is piss-poor and riddled with jarring crash zooms and tilting dutch angles. Everything’s way too dark to see much of the action, possibly to cover the low budget or possibly due to sheer ineptness. Regardless, it’s impossible to get properly invested in the story. The score wildly vacillates from pure synth to bow-bow-bow bass twangs, obviously hoping to give the whole thing a Lethal Weapon vibe, but it fails epically. Perhaps the weirdest thing about the whole affair is the ‘pop pop!’ fake gun sound effects that seem to have been recorded on set and which, along with the stilted acting, make the film seem like a Max Fischer production.
Sic transit gloria.
The Traveler (2010)
IMDb: 4.1, Rotten Tomatoes: 20%
The concept behind The Traveler is quite decent. Kilmer plays a mysterious stranger who walks into a small town police station on a gloomy night, confessing to multiple murders. Without a backstory or identity, his bizarre confession starts to become reality as everyone in the station meets a gruesome end. Who is he, and why is he doing it? Unfortunately by the end you’ll be wishing you hadn’t asked, as the explanation is tenuous and makes virtually no sense.
With the look and style of many other movies in the same genre (the best of which is perhaps James Mangold’s uneven 2003 thriller Identity) The Traveler has very little to offer a seasoned viewer.
It’s important to note that, with the exception of Felon, there is nothing particularly surprising or unique about Kilmer’s performance in any of these films. Also, and there’s no dancing around it, he looks deeply weird here – like the elderly woman who took her brush to that 19th century Jesus fresco in a bid to helpfully restore it managed to get her hands on a picture of a Friends-era Jennifer Aniston and slowly smudged it into something vaguely resembling Val Kilmer. It’s deeply, deeply distracting and weird.
IMDb: 3.8, Rotten Tomatoes: 25%
Kilmer and 50 Cent are back together again (yay?) in Gun, where they switch roles a little. Here, 50 is the star – playing a crime boss on the rise called Angel – with Kilmer co-starring as his friend from prison who just happens to be looking for a way back into the world of doing really bad stuff. Neither actor comes out of the brisk 74-minute-long running time well.
Gun has the feel of what could be the longest music video intro in history – longer than Thriller, possibly longer than even Telephone – and that isn’t exactly quelled by the constant soundtrack of 50 Cent hits pumping over nearly every transition shot and montage. But the real problems here are the very basic script and 50 himself, who cannot and should not be asked to carry an entire film.
For example, the dialogue is often unintentionally hilarious. On being reunited with his cellmate, 50 asks a waiting Kilmer “watchoo into now?” to which Kilmer replies “uh, crime.” Ah yes, crime – the frenchiest fry. That is definitely a very unsuspicious answer; I don’t think there’s any possible chance you could have blown your undercover mission there.
There’s also the small matter (no pun intended) of 50’s erotic sex scene with 90210’s AnnaLynne McCord. Soul Plane director Jessy Terrero shoots the unfolding seduction as sympathetically as possible, and McCord tries to compensate with a Showgirls-level amount of thrashing, moaning and hair flipping – but it’s clear that 50 is crushingly uncomfortable with being asked to be sexy and do sex with the sexy lady while some men film the sexy sex.
By the end, despite what little there is of the story unfolding rapidly, I still felt like I’d been watching it for days. But hey, if you’re a 50 Cent completest? Feel free to go for it. You’d certainly have my awe and respect as a fellow cinematic masochist.
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