The irony of course is that while this weekend is entirely about Batman, the actor who once played the Dark Knight himself, at the height of the franchise, is rumbling into theatres with a very small indie film about being wrongly separated from where you belong. Even more eerily serendipitous is that Ric Roman Waugh's film about prison-life called Felon has the once A-list star of cultural phenomenon motion pictures such as Top Gun, Willow, The Doors, and Tombstone mentoring a younger inmate (played by perennially B-list actor, Stephen Dorff) about how the system applies an indelible label to everyone who passes through and how it is far better to embrace your definition than to fight it. It is a matter, really, of survival. Val Kilmer, at this stage in his career, knows a thing or two about surviving a preconceived notion or two.
It was in 1995 that Kilmer portrayed billionaire vigilante Bruce Wayne and it was 1995 that his skyrocketing career veered off the tracks. After starring roles in bombs such as The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), The Saint (1997), Red Planet (2000), and Wonderland (2003), Kilmer seemed hardly employable as a leading man. While 2005's loopy and fun Kiss Kiss Bang Bang presented the actor with a mild comeback, last year he was relegated to performing the voice of K.I.T.T in the Knight Rider update. Currently, Mr. Kilmer has eight or nine projects in the works, and more than many actors who have ridden the rollercoaster of fame to its nadir, Ice Man is deserved of a healthy resurrection.
As much as I'd like to talk about Felon, Val Kilmer the man is far more interesting. Felon stands out only because the writer/director worked in corrections and used real inmates and ex-convicts as his extras. Roman Waugh claims the experience working with ex-cons lent the film a grittiness and authenticity that you won't find anywhere else. He also concentrates heavily on the import of race in the penal system. Once you are incarcerated, the color of your skin is everything it seems. While the film is violent and decidedly tragic, the overall sensation of watching it is nothing you haven't experienced before with numerous films, from Death Warrant to Lock Up to Oz. Even Oz's Harold Perrineau is present, playing against type as the archetype maniacal power-mad warden who believes that the prison he oversees is his domain where there are no rules. The only difference in vanatge that Roman Waugh adds to the script is that we first meet Perrineau's warden as he drops off his kid at school, so we initially perceive him as a family man. It makes the man's brutality witnessed later on all the more striking (but at the same time all the more incredible). But beyond the shock value, Roman Waugh abuses the typical ploy taken from every prison movie, including the godfather of them all, Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption. It seems with these films, we are always asked to "relate" or "sympathize" with the charming characters (murderers, rapists, arsonists) behind bars, and the filmmaker's go-to method of inducing that dynamic is to make the guards worse than the prisoners. Is that scenario realistic and more common than the average audience would like to believe? Perhaps. But that is still no excuse to lay down the same storyline and ask moviegoers to retread material observed time and time again. When Dorff's character is eventually reunited with his family after a contrived and wholly illogical release scheme, the luster of the film's alleged authenticity flies out the window.
Far cooler than the film was meeting Val Kilmer to talk about…Felon, Val Kilmer, and everything in between. Mr. Kilmer entered the room, tanned, golden hair slicked back, wearing a pristine white linen jacket ("Do you know what is practical about a white linen jacket?", he rhetorically asked as he sat down, just before going into a tangent about a chance sighting of John and Yoko in Central Park, "…Nothing."). Even when the assembled press attempted dutifully to draw the questioning back to Felon, the engaging star of the film merely desired to entertain the fawning media with his celebrity ("I'm not done name dropping yet!" he stoically scolded). Kilmer was obligingly aware that Felon was a small movie, facing off hopelessly with a mega-blockbuster ("We're gonna kill them with our eight theatres to their twenty-five thousand"), and that he was the reason we had gathered on a muggy July afternoon in New York.
He joked about Brando stealing his midget during the Moreau shoot ("I don't care if he's dead. He's a rat!"). He spoke of Bob Dylan being one of the funniest men alive, but with a straight face so it was difficult to determine if he was kidding. With a rascally glint in his eye, Kilmer lusted over his on-set flirtations with Eva Mendes (their film, Bad Lieutenant, is now being shot in New Orleans). He candidly revealed the one time his daughter called him after a drugged up friend passed out, and he may have saved the girl's life by taking charge. The whimsical manner in which he delivered his answers and anecdotes took pause when he spoke of parenting. "If you have children," he commented with passion and sincerity, "you better know what you are willing to do or not do. There are questions we need to ask ourselves in case of emergencies." Like many of the engaging speaker's sentiments, the focus of that particular statement remained somewhat vague, yet it was pleasant to see a Hollywood parent who clearly considers himself a parent, and not merely a source of funds and opportunity (though with his daughter currently in France, Kilmer began yelling into the microphone as if to her, "If you can hear me, you better not be doing anything!").
Finally the conversation returned to the upcoming weekend – Batman versus Felon, Once Upon a Time Val Kilmer versus the current incarnation. Surprisingly, he refused to bad mouth Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher and merely chalked up Batman Forever's stiffness to a misguided yearning to leap over the top in the spirit of Nicholson's Joker from Tim Burton's Batman. Chris Nolan's last effort, Batman Begins, Kilmer said, was more in line with what he had imagined the films should be.
The interview/experience culminated with Val Kilmer encouraging us (and by extension, you) to visit prisons and talk to murderers. We waited for the punch line but there was none coming. He then told one last tale - of a convicted pedophile who was tortured mercilessly in jail by both guards and inmates (as pedophiles are the lowest rank of filth in the prison caste system). Though the crimes the man committed in society and the horrors he encountered inside seemed a fair trade, Kilmer noted that upon investigation it was learned that the criminal was severely abused and molested himself as a child and had not been so much evil as something detestable created by evil. "Everyone has a story," Val Kilmer said as if to say everyone deserves a second look. Middle-aged gifted actors included.