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