Review: ‘Top Gun: Maverick,’ starring Tom Cruise

May 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

Miles Teller and Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“Top Gun: Maverick”

Directed by Joseph Kosinski

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, the action film “Top Gun: Maverick” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: U.S. Navy Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell returns to the TOPGUN aviator program, where he reluctantly becomes an instructor for new recruits, including a man who blames Maverick for damaging his career and causing his father’s death. 

Culture Audience: “Top Gun: Maverick” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Tom Cruise, 1986’s “Top Gun” and any formulaic action sequel that is a virtual copy of its predecessor.

Jennifer Connelly and Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“Top Gun: Maverick” is an uninspired, outdated retread of 1986’s “Top Gun,” but with more implausible scenarios and with no women in military leadership positions. Even the original songs in this sequel are forgettable. While “Top Gun: Maverick” has more racial diversity than the first “Top Gun” movie, the people of color in the movie are still relegated to “sidekick” and forgettable roles. “Top Gun: Maverick” makes the same mistake that a lot of sequels do: Copying the same plot as the first movie without improving it.

What makes this mistake less acceptable is that “Top Gun: Maverick” has arrived 36 years after the release of the first “Top Gun” movie. That’s plenty of time to think up ways to take the movie in innovative and clever directions. (By contrast, Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise keeps things fresh with stories and action scenes that are unique to each movie.) Directed by Joseph Kosinski, “Top Gun: Maverick” was originally supposed to be released in 2019, but it was delayed multiple times because of post-production issues, the COVID-19 pandemic and other reasons. The movie was filmed before the pandemic.

A sequel should have familiar elements of its predecessor. It doesn’t mean that a sequel should rehash a predecessor’s plot. Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie wrote the formulaic and disappointing screenplay for “Top Gun: Maverick,” which essentially regurgitates the same story in “Top Gun.”

Both movies are about the U.S. Navy’s Fighter Weapons School at Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego. This elite school is nicknamed TOPGUN. Both movies are about a hotshot young TOPGUN school airplane pilot clashing with an arrogant rival classmate while being haunted by the death of a loved one and facing a big challenge in the training program.

In “Top Gun,” Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell character (played by Tom Cruise) was the hotshot student. In “Top Gun: Maverick,” he’s the main TOPGUN instructor, who has to teach his group of TOPGUN graduates how to fight in a secretive government mission targeting an unsanctioned uranium nuclear plant. In a case of history repeating itself, “Top Gun: Maverick” also has a funeral scene when someone close to Maverick dies.

Eddie Murphy’s horrible 2021 comedy Coming 2 America (the long-awaited sequel to 1988’s “Coming to America”) made the same mistake of lazily copying the same basic plot of its predecessor and trying to make the story look new by introducing a younger generation of new characters. “Coming 2 America” had even worse results, because of the movie’s awful racism and sexism, including making a joke out of an African American woman getting pregnant after she drugged and raped a man. “Top Gun: Maverick” isn’t as offensively bad as “Coming 2 America,” but the movie still has a “stuck in the 1980s” mindset that looks out of place in a movie that’s supposed to take place in the 21st century.

The first “Top Gun” movie (directed by Tony Scott, who died in 2012, at the age of 68) had only two or three people of color in the entire movie. They were African American men who were mostly put in the background. Only one of the African American men was allowed to speak in the movie, and he was literally given just two minor sentences to say. “Top Gun” was written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.

To its credit, “Top Gun: Maverick” has a lot more racial diversity in its cast. There are some African American and Latino characters who say more than a few sentences, but their personalities are very hollow and generic. Needless to say, the people of color in “Top Gun” Maverick” do not get backstories or a significant storyline in the movie.

“Top Gun: Maverick” also falters in its depiction of women, who are once again made into token characters. But in “Top Gun: Maverick,” the depiction of the women goes in a backwards direction, because there are no women shown in positions of power in the U.S. miliary or in the TOPGUN training program. Women have come a long way in the U.S. military since 1986, but you’d never know it from watching “Top Gun: Maverick,” which puts only men in military leadership positions.

At least in “Top Gun,” one of the main characters was an intelligent woman in a position of power, even though she was still a token: Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood (played by Kelly McGillis), a civilian and an astrophysicist, who was an instructor in the TOPGUN program. Charlie and Maverick became romantically involved with each other. The movie realistically shows that Charlie was conflicted about this relationship because of how it might compromise her professional judgment and reputation. McGillis shared top billing with Cruise in “Top Gun.” In “Top Gun: Maverick,” Cruise is one of the movie’s producers, and he’s the only star who gets top billing.

The only other woman in “Top Gun” who had a significant speaking role (but got a lot less screen time than Charlie) was bubbly and outgoing Carole Bradshaw (played by Meg Ryan), the wife of Lieutenant Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (played by Anthony Edwards), who was Maverick’s best friend and Radar Intercept Officer, also known as a “wingman.” Carole and Goose have a son, who’s about 5 or 6 years old in the movie. In “Top Gun,” Goose died in a tragic accident during a training session with Maverick as the pilot. Maverick was cleared of any wrongdoing, but he’s been guilt-ridden about Goose’s death ever since.

Charlie and Carole are not in “Top Gun: Maverick” because these female characters weren’t even considered for this sequel, according to interviews that director Kosinski has given about the movie. Charlie is not mentioned in “Top Gun: Maverick.” Carole is briefly mentioned because she’s dead, having passed away for an untold number of years before this story takes place. In other words, the “Top Gun: Maverick” filmmakers killed off the Carole Bradshaw character.

In “Top Gun: Maverick,” the son of Goose and Carole is all grown up now. And just like his father, he’s a U.S. Navy lieutenant who’s now a trainee in the TOPGUN program. His name is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (played by Miles Teller), and he’s got a chip on his shoulder and a lot to prove because he’s living in the shadow of his dead father, who was considered a military hero. If those “daddy issues” sound familiar, it’s exactly what Maverick was going through when he went through the TOPGUN training program. Maverick’s high-ranking U.S. Navy father was on a top-secret government mission when he went missing and is presumed dead.

Rooster knows that Maverick was not responsible for Goose’s death, but Rooster still has hard feelings toward Maverick over his father’s untimely passing. Rooster also resents Maverick because Maverick blocked Rooster from getting into the U.S. Naval Academy. Unbeknownst to Rooster, Maverick did so at the request of Rooster’s mother Carole, who didn’t want Rooster to be in the military. It was only after Carole died that Rooster was able to enroll in the U.S. Naval Academy.

In the beginning of “Top Gun: Maverick,” Maverick still has the ranking of captain. It’s explained that he has not been promoted for all these years because he has a tendency to be rebellious and reckless. However, the U.S. Navy has kept him on as a test pilot because of his extraordinary pilot skills. It’s mentioned in the movie that’s he’s the only pilot in the U.S. Navy to shoot down 30 enemy planes.

Maverick is considered a dinosaur relic from a bygone era by several high-ranking people in the U.S. Navy. Some of those people think he needs to be honorably discharged, but Maverick loves his military job too much to leave, and he is being protected by Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (played by Val Kilmer), who has a small supporting role in “Top Gun: Maverick.” As shown in the first “Top Gun” movie, Iceman (also played by Kilmer) was Maverick’s biggest rival in the TOPGUN program. However, they eventually became friends with deep respect for each other.

In California’s Mohave Desert, Maverick is part of a program that is being shut down because it hasn’t met Mach 10 standards. Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (played by Ed Harris) is coming to the naval base for the official cancellation of the program. To embarrass him, Maverick takes a plane in the air, and not only hits the Mach 10 target, but he also exceeds it. But by doing so, he ends up flaming out, but how Maverick lands the plane is never shown. All that’s shown is that he comes back looking dirty and disheveled, without any injuries.

This unauthorized use of a military plane for a showoff stunt would be grounds for serious disciplinary action in the real world. But in this make-believe world where Maverick is supposed to be a roguish hero, time and time again, he gets let off the hook for his flagrant insubordination. Hammer tells Maverick with begrudging respect, “You’ve got some balls, stick jockey. I’ll give you that.” Get used to hokey dialogue like this in “Top Gun: Maverick,” because the movie is full of it.

Now that Maverick’s program has been shuttered, he’s been assigned to do something he doesn’t want to do: Go back to the TOPGUN program in San Diego to be an instructor. Maverick is one of those people who believes in that old saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” In other words, he thinks this teaching job is for someone who’s a has-been or a never-was, who doesn’t have what it takes to currently be a pilot.

Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (played by Jon Hamm) is one of the Navy officials who is gunning for Maverick to leave the Navy. He even says as much, when he tells Maverick: “The future is coming, and you’re not in it.” Cyclone has a sidekick named Admiral Solomon “Warlock” Bates (played by Charles Parnell), who doesn’t do much but be in the same room as Cyclone and go along with almost everything that Cyclone says. However, Warlock has a few moments where he shows that he’s really rooting for Maverick. The same goes for Warrant Officer-1 Bernie “Hondo” Coleman (played by Bashir Salahuddin), who makes some bland wisecracks during the movie.

Maverick has to choose six of his 12 students to go on the secret mission to disable the uranium plant, which is set to activate in about three weeks. Predictably, Rooster and Maverick clash with each other. At one point, Rooster yells at Maverick: “My dad believed in you. I’m not going to make the same mistake!”

More than once in the movie, Maverick tells his trainees to ignore what they were taught in the Navy’s rulebook, and he says some variation of “Don’t think, just do” He expects them to not overthink things and to trust their instincts. Of course, in Maverick’s lectures about not following what authority figures say, he thinks he’s the exception, because he wants to be the only authority figure who must be obeyed in this program.

In addition to Rooster, the other students in the program include Rooster’s smirking, cocky rival Lieutenant Jake “Hangman” Seresin (played by Glen Powell), whose personality is a virtual replica of how Iceman was in the first “Top Gun” movie. Hangman tries to find emotional weakness in Rooster to have a competitive advantage. When Hangman discovers Rooster’s “daddy issues” and why Rooster has tensions with Maverick, it leads to the inevitable fist fight between Hangman and Rooster.

The token woman in this group of chosen trainees is Lieutenant Natasha “Phoenix”
Trace (played by Monica Barbaro), who doesn’t have much of a personality, except trying to fit in with the guys. Lieutenant Robert “Bob” Floyd (played by Lewis Pullman) has the role of the nerd who’s somewhat of social outcast in this competitive group. Bob gets teased because he hasn’t thought up a flashy nickname, also known as a call sign, like all the other TOPGUN aviators.

The other trainees do not have distinguishable personalities and are given very trite dialogue. They include Lieutenant Reuben “Payback” Fitch (played by Jay Ellis); Lieutenant Mickey “Fanboy” Garcia (played by Danny Ramirez); and Lt. Javy “Coyote” Machado (played by Greg Tarzan Davis). Most viewers of “Top Gun: Maverick” will have a hard time remembering these three characters’ names and what they said by the time the movie is over.

Unlike the first “Top Gun” movie, which showed the male trainees carousing at bars and trying to pick up women, the trainees in “Top Gun” are a much tamer crew. When they go to a bar, they gather around a piano and sing Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” with Rooster playing the piano. Maverick sees this camaraderie, and it triggers him to have a flashback memory to when he, Goose and other TOPGUN trainees did the same thing, with Goose’s young son sitting nearby for the sing-along. (This scene from “Top Gun” is shown as a flashback.)

Speaking of bars where these TOPGUN people hang out, the main bar they go to is The Hard Deck aviators’ club. It just happens to be owned and bartended by Penny Benjamin (played by Jennifer Connelly), who is the daughter of a U.S. Navy admiral. Penny was briefly mentioned, but never seen, in the first “Top Gun” movie as one of the many conquests whom ladies’ man Maverick got sexually involved with and then dumped.

Penny is now a divorced mother to a daughter named Amelia Benjamin (played by Lyliana Wray), who’s about 13 or 14 years old. Penny’s ex-husband, who is never seen in “Top Gun: Maverick,” has remarried and is living in Hawaii. It’s implied that never-married bachelor Maverick and Penny have had an on-again/off-again relationship, where Maverick left her heartbroken because he ended things with her every time. When Penny sees Maverick again all these years later, she predictably gives him a hard time for breaking up with her.

But just as predictably, she eventually lets him back into her life, and they rekindle their romance. Maverick and Penny look good together as a couple, but they don’t generate as much romantic heat as Maverick had with Charlie. Although Penny is a business owner, her role is essentially to be a generic love interest who follows Maverick’s lead when he courts her and succeeds in winning a place back into her heart.

Penny initially wants to keep this rekindled romance a secret from her daughter Amelia, who inevitably finds out anyway. Even after it’s no longer a secret, Maverick doesn’t spend any quality time with Amelia, which he would care about doing if he’s serious about a relationship with Penny. That’s why Maverick’s level of commitment to Penny is questionable, no matter how many “romantic” scenes are shown of Penny riding with Maverick on the back of his motorcycle. This scenario of Maverick giving his love interest a motorcycle ride is also recycled from the first “Top Gun” movie.

“Top Gun: Maverick” delivers when it comes to the airplane action scenes (with the F/A-18 being the airplane of choice), but too much of the movie is tediously predictable recycling of plot points and scenes from the first “Top Gun” movie. The scene of Maverick on a motorcycle while playfully racing a soaring fighter plane is recreated. It’s in the movie for pure nostalgia reasons for people who saw the first “Top Gun” movie.

Another recycled scene takes place at a beach where the TOPGUN aviators are playing a sports game together in their free time. In “Top Gun,” it was volleyball. In “Top Gun: Maverick,” it’s touch football. This beach frolicking scene only seems to be in the movie so that Cruise and the other men can be shirtless and show off their toned physiques. Even the closing credits scene is styled exactly like the first “Top Gun” movie.

One of the highlights of “Top Gun: Maverick” is a poignant scene between Maverick and Iceman, who is battling throat cancer, just Kilmer is in real life. However, “Top Gun: Maverick” ends up being marred by too many unrealistic scenarios. There’s even more disregard of real-life U.S. military protocol than what was in the first “Top Gun” movie. Maverick does things that would get him dishonorably discharged in the real world—but of course he doesn’t get discharged, because this is a Tom Cruise movie. And the ending of “Top Gun: Maverick” is even more cornball than the ending of the first “Top Gun” movie.

The “Top Gun” soundtrack was the biggest-selling soundtrack of 1986. And it’s easy to know why. People who’ve seen the first “Top Gun” movie know how the music was used to great effect. Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” song fueled a high-energy scene early in the movie. Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” memorably played during a romantic scene between Charlie and Maverick on the night that they became lovers. Those two signature “Top Gun” songs were instant classics that stayed in viewers’ minds long after seeing the movie. Although “Top Gun” got some criticism for being filmed almost like a music video, there’s no denying that the movie’s music was one of its biggest assets.

Unfortunately, “Top Gun: Maverick” has an utterly mediocre soundtrack, with songs that have been used in many other movies, such as Foghat’s “Slow Ride” and T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On).” There’s nothing wrong with these tunes, but they’re overplayed in too many other places. And because “Top Gun: Maverick” is a movie of rehashes, “Danger Zone” also makes a reappearance. The original soundtrack songs on “Top Gun: Maverick,” such as Lady Gaga’s “Hold My Hand,” won’t be winning any Oscars, like Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.”

Viewers who will enjoy “Top Gun” the most are those who want to see a superficial recreation of the first “Top Gun” movie. But for other people who know that “Top Gun: Maverick” could have been a lot better, the movie falls short in coming up with any major story arc that would be truly original and daring for this sequel. The performances in “Top Gun Maverick” aren’t terrible, but they aren’t that special either. In the end, “Top Gun: Maverick,” just like its main character, is stuck in a rut of reliving past glories, and ends up having more swagger and posturing than any real substance.

Paramount Pictures will release “Top Gun: Maverick” in U.S. cinemas on May 27, 2022.

Review: ‘Val,’ starring Val Kilmer

August 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Val Kilmer in “Val” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios and A24 Distribution)


Directed by Leo Scott and Ting Poo

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in various parts of the world, the documentary film “Val” features an all-white group of people, including actor Val Kilmer, talking about his life, career and legacy.

Culture Clash: Kilmer opens up about his throat cancer, his reputation for being a “difficult” and “eccentric” actor, and conflicts he’s had in his career and personal life.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of Val Kilmer fans, “Val” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in non-fiction movies about people with cancer and mainstream movies from the 1980s and 1990s.

Jack Kilmer in “Val” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios and A24 Distribution)

When actor Val Kilmer made his feature-film debut in the 1984 comedy “Top Secret!,” he probably never imagined that his best movie would be an emotionally moving documentary where he looks back on his life while battling throat cancer. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, and he now has to use a voice device to speak. The cancer might have robbed Kilmer of the speaking voice that he used to have, but it hasn’t robbed him of his spirit. The documentary “Val” (directed by Leo Scott and Ting Poo) beautifully captures that spirit of this admittedly very flawed human being.

It’s refreshing that the documentary “Val” isn’t like most celebrity documentaries, which are usually filled with interviews of people praising the celebrity and padded with footage that’s already been widely seen by the celebrity’s fans. “Val” is told in Val Kilmer’s own words, with his son Jack Kilmer (who is also an actor) providing much of the voiceover narration. It’s essentially an intriguing movie version of his 2020 autobiography “I’m Your Huckleberry: A Memoir.”

The “Val” documentary also greatly benefits from all the personal archives that Val (who was born on December 31, 1959) admits he has been obsessively compiling from a very young age. Long before social media existed, he was filming himself and his experiences as much as possible. In the beginning of the documentary, he gives a brief tour of the warehouse-sized storage that he has for all the film footage, recordings, photos, scrapbooks and other personal memorabilia that he has amassed. So much of this footage is in the documentary that Val is credited with being a cinematographer for this movie.

Therefore, many of the highlights of “Val” include previously unreleased footage that can be raw, hilarious or sometimes uncomfortable to watch—but never boring. People who watch “Val” can see moments where his fixation on filming his experiences sometimes annoyed people around him. It’s an indication of how this documentary is a lot more honest than most documentaries would be about how a celebrity’s need to be filmed as much as possible can get very negative reactions from people close to the celebrity.

Val comments in the documentary through Jack’s voiceover narration: “I’ve lived a magical life. I have thousands of hours of videotapes and reels I’ve shot of my life and career. I’ve kept everything, and it’s been sitting in boxes for years … I’ve wanted to tell a story about acting for a very long time. Now that it’s more difficult to speak, I want to tell my story now more than ever—a story about my life that is also not my life.” Val then says of his life story in his own voice (which became impaired do to caner radiation treatments), “I know it’s incomplete.”

The documentary opens with some of this personal behind-the-scenes footage of Val on the set of 1986’s “Top Gun.” In this action flick about hotshot aviators in the U.S. Navy, he co-starred alongside Tom Cruise, with Val in the role of antagonist Tom “Iceman” Kazansky. “Top Gun” was Val’s third movie and his first big blockbuster. To this day, much of the memorabilia that he’s asked to autograph is for “Top Gun.”

In the behind-the-scenes footage, Val is shown goofing around in a film-set trailer with “Top Gun” co-star Rick Rossovich. Val holds up a cigarette pack up to his ear like someone would hold a phone to place an order. Val says, “More sex, more drugs, more wine, more headaches, more ulcers, more herpes, more women. And less of Tom Cruise!”

It’s an example of Val’s offbeat sense of humor. Val says in the documentary that although he and Cruise had a real rivalry on the set of “Top Gun,” to mirror the rivalry that their characters had in the movie, they actually became friends in real life. Val says he still has a cordial relationship with Cruise. He also comments that he wasn’t a fan of the “war-mongering” aspect of “Top Gun,” but he appreciates that people enjoyed the movie. Val also jokes in this behind-the-scenes “Top Gun” footage that he’s been fired from every movie he’s ever done.

All joking aside, Val opens up about a tragedy that had a profound impact on him: the death of his beloved younger brother Wesley. Val is the middle of three sons of industrialist/real-estate developer Eugene and Gladys Kilmer, who got divorced when he was 8 years old. The three children (Val, his older brother Mark and younger brother Wesley) were raised in a comfortably upper-middle-class household in Chatsworth, California, where his high school classmates included future famous actors Kevin Spacey and Mare Winningham. The Kilmer kids also had a charmed life at that time, which included living in a home that used to be owned by Roy Rogers, one of Val’s early idols.

Val describes his father as a business wheeler dealer, who owned a company called Liberty Engineering, and who used his power and influence to get full custody of his kids in the divorce. Val says his mother Gladys was “a spiritual woman who loved horses,” “an enigma” and “strong but aloof.” She eventually remarried and moved to Arizona. The three Kilmer brothers had a passion for filmmaking from an early age and spent a lot of time making short films together. There’s footage of one of those childhood short films called “Teeth,” which is about a killer shark.

Val says that Wesley was an aspiring film director and “an artistic genius whose imagination dwarfed mine.” In addition to acting in homemade short films, Val got involved in acting in school plays. And he was thrilled when, at age 17, he got accepted into the Juilliard School, a prestigious artistic university in New York City. Val claims he was the youngest person to be enrolled as a Juilliard student at the time. (The documentary has no verification from Juilliard to determine that this claim is true.)

While at Juilliard, Val says that he and other students helped create a playwright department because the school didn’t have one at the time. He collaborated with other students to stage the play “How It All Began,” based on German terrorist Michael Baumann’s memoir. He says, “I experienced the joy of performing my own words on stage. It was life-changing.” The play was so good that the students were invited to perform it on a real New York stage with paying customers, not just within the confines of the school.

The documentary includes new footage of Val taking his son Jack to Juilliard to show him around the school. Val points to an oversized photo of one of Juilliard’s former students, and asks Jack if he knows who that person is. Jack says no, and Val says it’s Kelly McGillis, who was one of the co-stars of “Top Gun.” In another part of the movie, Val says he and McGillis became good pals while filming “Top Gun,” partly because of their Juilliard connection.

While in his first year at Juilliard, Val got devastating news: Wesley died of an epileptic seizure while in a jacuzzi. He was 15 years old. As he says in the documentary, “My confidant disappeared into dust. Our family was never the same.” He also describes “being raw with grief” during his first year at Juilliard. And he says that his father Eugene became “a detached and vacant version of himself.”

After graduation, Val went on to do some work in New York theater. In 1983, two years after graduating from Juilliard, he had his first big Broadway break with a starring role in the play “Slab Boys.” In a self-deprecating tone, he talks about getting bumped from the play’s first-lead role to the third-lead role, after Sean Penn became available for the first-lead role, and Kevin Bacon got the second-lead role. There’s backstage footage of all of these future famous actors goofing around in a dressing room during their “Slab Boys” experience.

There’s also footage of Val getting lectured by acting coach Peter Kass during a rehearsal where Val was asked to tap into emotions of wanting to die, and Val says he’s never really felt those emotions. Kass gets irritated and shouts at Val in front of the group that everyone has had those feelings, but some actors are more honest about it than others. “There’s no way you’ve never had those thoughts!” Kass bellows.

Kilmer might have lost out on the starring role in “Slab Boys,” but he got a starring role in the action comedy “Top Secret!,” his first feature film. It was a spy caper with a plot that he calls silly and confusing. He filmed the movie in London, where by chance he saw a play called “The Genius,” directed by future Oscar-winning filmmaker Danny Boyle.

Co-starring in “The Genius” was a British actress named Joanne Whalley, whom Val says he became infatuated with at first sight because of her beauty and talent. He quips in the documentary, “She was brilliant, and I was making fluff.” Val says that he went back to see the play several times because of Whalley. And he even followed her to a pub after one of the shows, but he was too shy to approach her.

She and Val didn’t meet until years later, when they ended up co-starring together on the 1988 fantasy film “Willow.” They got married in 1988. Their daughter Mercedes was born in 1991, and Jack arrived in 1995. The couple relocated to New Mexico (the home state of Val’s paternal grandfather) and got divorced in 1996.

The former couple went through a contentious custody battle because Val wanted to stay in New Mexico, while Whalley wanted to raise the kids in California. The documentary includes an audio recording of Val having a heated phone conversation with her about their custody arrangement. (Only his voice is heard, not hers.)

There’s some family footage from happier times, including Val’s wedding and home videos of him being a doting father when the kids were young. Val also doesn’t shy away from talking about the bad times, such as when he lost a lot of money from shady business deals that his father got Val mixed up in after Val became a movie star in the 1980s. Val says that he had the choice to either sue his father or just pay off his father’s debts, and he chose to pay off the debts.

Whatever pain was caused by Val’s divorce, his children certainly have a good relationship with him now. He lights up every time he’s around them. And in one of the movie’s more poignant moments, Val, his ex-wife and their kids are shown as they gather in Arizona for the funeral of Val’s mother, who died in 2019. It’s the part of the movie where Val seems to be the most vulnerable. He puts on one of her necklaces, and he tears up when he says, “I miss my mama, but I had a vision that she was so happy with her youngest son.”

“Val” also has some insightful footage about some of his experiences in his more famous movies. Many of his fans already know that he used Method acting to immerse himself in the role of rock singer/poet Jim Morrison for 1991’s “The Doors,” directed by Oliver Stone. There’s some behind-the-scenes footage of him rehearsing in character as Morrison. He admits in the documentary that making “The Doors” was an all-consuming process that was very difficult on his marriage: “For my wife, Joanne, it was total hell. Home was just another place [for me] to rehearse.”

“The Doors” movie got mixed reactions from critics and audiences, but almost everyone agreed that Val’s uncannily accurate portrayal of Morrison was the best thing about “The Doors.” (Val did his own singing in the movie.) Although he’s never been nominated for an Oscar for his acting, his highly praised performance in “The Doors” was the closest that he came to getting an Oscar nomination. In several interviews over the years, Val has said that out of all of his movie roles, his portrayal of Jim Morrison was the one that personally affected him the most.

For his starring role in 1995’s “Batman Forever,” he hated the heaviness of the Batman suit because it limited his movements and ability to hear. He says in the documentary, “It was a struggle for me to get a performance past the suit, until I realized my role in the film was just to show up and stand where I was told to.” Ironically, Val says that when he got the call to do the movie, he was in a bat cave in Africa. Who really knows if that’s true? But it makes a great anecdote.

Even though “Batman Forever” was a massive hit and he was offered millions to do a follow-up “Batman” movie, he declined the offer and chose instead to do the 1997 spy film “The Saint,” because he got to play a character who had different personas like a chameleon. And it seems Val dodged a bullet by doing that next “Batman” movie, because it was 1997’s much-ridiculed “Batman and Robin,” starring George Clooney as Batman. (The documentary includes some satirical home video footage of a present-day Val and his son Jack dressed as Batman and Robin, respectively.)

At times in the documentary, Val acknowledges that his reputation for being a “difficult” actor was probably accurate. “I’ve behaved poorly, and I’ve behaved bravely,” he says. However, from watching this documentary, you get the feeling that Val has no overall regrets about his career choices because he feels lucky that he’s had a lot of great experiences and got to work with many of his actor idols. He describes the day that he finished shooting “Batman Forever,” he walked onto the set of his next movie: 1995’s crime drama “Heat,” directed by Michael Mann and co-starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. “‘Heat’ felt like an indie film,” Val remembers.

Val also got to work with Marlon Brando, perhaps his biggest actor idol, in a movie that had a much more tortuous production: 1996’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” which was a massive flop. Tensions were already running high because the movie’s original director (Richard Stanley) was fired, and replacement director John Frankenheimer did not endear himself to many people in the cast and crew. Two of the principal actors (Bruce Willis and Rob Morrow) quit the movie. Val was the replacement for Willis as the Dr. Montgomery character. Val calls the “The Island of Dr. Moreau” a “doomed” movie. And it also has bad memories for him because he got served divorce papers on the film set.

Behind the scenes, Val and Frankenheimer clashed on the set. (The movie includes footage of some of their arguing.) The way Val describes it, Frankenheimer didn’t really know how to direct the movie, and the director was more concerned about rushing to finish the over-budget movie than the quality of the film. Val also says that Frankenheimer made the mistake of alienating Brando by not listening to any of Brando’s suggestions.

Meanwhile, the behind-the-scenes footage shows that Val insisted that he could only act in a scene if he was in the right frame of mind. Frankenheimer was also clearly irritated by Val filming this behind-the-scenes footage, which includes Frankenheimer ordering Val to turn off the camera, and Val ignoring the request, which caused Frankenheimer to get even angrier. In other behind-the-scenes footage on the film set, “The Island of Dr. Moreau” co-stars David Thewlis and Fairuza Balk look like they know they’re stuck in a disastrous movie and are trying to make the best out of a horrible situation.

A laugh-out-loud moment in the documentary is some footage revealing that things got so bad during filming of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” that Brando refused to come to work on some days, so they got his body double named Norm to film some of Brando’s scenes. Brando’s Dr. Moreau character wore heavy white makeup, so it was possible to disguise that it really wasn’t Brando in the scene where the character wasn’t required to speak. (It probably wasn’t funny at the time, but it’s funny to look at now.) A priceless moment in the documentary is footage of Val sneaking up on Brando, who’s resting in a hammock at night, and Val pushes the hammock like someone would push a child on a swing.

Not all of the documentary is about showing Val’s life at the height of his career. There’s also footage of a post-cancer Val attending fan conventions, which he says he needs to do to supplement his income. He makes money at these events by meet-and-greet sessions, where fans pay to get his autograph and get photos with him. At a tribute event in Texas for Val and his 1993 film “Tombstone,” Val has a moment alone where he looks sad and makes a confession.

Val says, “Sometimes I have the blues about having to fly around the country. I don’t look great, and I’m basically selling my old self, my old career. For many people, it’s the worst thing you can do … But it allows me to meet my fans. What ends up happening is I feel really grateful rather than humiliated, because there are so many people.”

Before his voice was impaired by cancer, Val was able to fulfill his dream of portraying Mark Twain (one of his artistic idols) on stage. In order to pay off his debts and get the money for the play, he sold 6,000 acres of land that he owned in New Mexico and that he had hoped would be part of his legacy to his children. He spent years writing the one-man play “Citizen Twain,” which went to several U.S. cities and probably would have continued as a touring production if Val hadn’t had gotten cancer.

Val seems to have taken his health condition in stride and wants to make the most out of the time that he has left on this earth. The documentary mentions that after his cancer diagnosis, he founded HelMel Studios, a Los Angeles-based gathering space for artists. And one of the most memorable things he says in the documentary perhaps best sums up why his life story can resonate with so many people: “I don’t believe in death. And my whole life, I’ve tried to see the world as one piece of life. When you pull back from the planet, you see that we are all one life source.”

Amazon Studios and A24 Distribution released “Val” in select U.S. cinemas on July 23, 2021. The movie’s premiere on Amazon Prime Video is on August 6, 2021.

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