The 14 Best Val Kilmer Movies Ranked

In July 2021, A24 and Amazon Prime released "Val," a documentary about the life and career of actor Val Kilmer. Part behind-the-scenes look at Val Kilmer movies, part autobiography, the film delves into the controversies and tragedies that define Kilmer as an actor. It's a warm and affecting documentary, made even more powerful for the presence of son Jack Kilmer as narrator — Kilmer recently lost his voice to throat cancer, and hearing the younger Kilmer provide voice over for the film is an uncanny way to turn back the clock.

But while "Val" shines a light on Kilmer's celebrity and methodology as a classically trained actor, the film is surprisingly light when it comes to his body of work. The truth is that Val Kilmer, difficult reputation and all, has worked steadily for over three decades to craft some of the best performances of his era. So, who better than an unapologetic Kilmer fan to help identify the best movies for your next actor-themed marathon? If you take nothing else away from this list, take this: Nobody plays a historical addict quite as well as Val Edward Kilmer.

14. Top Gun

Considering how many doors "Top Gun" opened for Kilmer, it may be surprising to learn that Kilmer only accepted the role of "Iceman" Kazansky out of contractual obligations. But that was one of the big takeaways from "Val," which contains behind-the-scenes footage from several of his productions. Perhaps, then, it is better to be lucky than good. Iceman is nowhere near Kilmer's best role, but it is the one that oozes potential and future star power. He is a perfectly calibrated foible for Tom Cruise — back when Tom Cruise was human enough to share the screen with anyone but his own stunts.

You know the scenes — volleyball on the beach, snapping teeth in the locker room — but the cultural impact of "Top Gun" may have overshadowed its quality as an action movie. Tony Scott would go on to establish himself as the maximalist version of his brother Ridley with films like "Days of Thunder" and "The Fan," but "Top Gun" remains a standout even on his impressive filmography. And with a sequel on its way (and a rumored cameo on the docket for Kilmer), we may yet see Iceman ride one last time before all is said and done.

13. Top Secret!

In "Val," Kilmer described "Top Secret!" as a painful transition from acting in the theater to acting in movies, noting that he spent months learning to play the guitar only to be asked not to play seriously because it made for a better gag. Then again, what does he know? He's just the actor. For the rest of us, "Top Secret!" is an absolute banger of a comedy, on par with "Airplane!" and the films in "The Naked Gun" franchise. The bookcase gag alone — an entire sequence filmed in reverse and played straight in every sense of the word — justifies its spot on the list.

No small part of that success is due to Kilmer's wide-eyed rock star Nick Rivers. Kilmer performed each of the songs on the soundtrack, much like he would a few years later as Jim Morrison in "The Doors," and serves as a perfectly sincere (and charmingly generic) hero for each of the movie's hundreds of gags. When taken together with the following year's "Real Genius," "Top Secret!" shows that Kilmer is adept at being both the straight man and the class clown. And I dare you not hum "How Silly Can You Get?" after the credits roll.

12. The Saint

Kilmer's reasons for turning down a second "Batman" movie have gotten contested with time — some claim he was fired from the sequel, Kilmer himself says that he hated the work – but there's no denying that the production of "Batman & Robin" did present problems for Kilmer's work on "The Saint." So, if history decides to firm up the narrative that Kilmer chose "The Saint" over "Batman & Robin," who can blame him? If you are going to hitch your wagon to a big-budget Hollywood film, why not pick the one where you get to play 15 different characters (as opposed to playing one, stiffly, in a rubber suit)?

Modern critics often compare "The Saint" to Tom Cruise's "Mission: Impossible" movies — both feature complex heists and plenty of disguises — but the better comparison might be "GoldenEye," Martin Campbell's broad reboot of the Bond franchise. This is no method actor — this is someone playing the debonair franchise lead. Maybe, just maybe, Kilmer wearing plastic teeth and bad accents was proof that the Serious Artist™ was not so serious after all. Oh, and compare "The Saint" to "GoldenEye," and tell me which one has aged better.

11. Red Planet

When it comes to science fiction, the best option for a filmmaker is to be the greatest director of your generation at the top of their game. But if you are not Stanley Kubrick and do not have a "2001: A Space Odyssey" up your sleeve, you can also do a lot worse than a sturdy, pulpy B-movie. "Red Planet" hit theaters the same year as Brian De Palma's "Mission to Mars," an incredibly sincere film about extraplanetary exploration and the origins of life on Earth. "Red Planet," by comparison, is a thriller about a crashed ship and a killer robot. Only one of them holds up.

Kilmer plays Robby Gallagher, a "space janitor" and engineer who is trapped on Mars when a terraforming expedition goes wrong. Rather than sell out on the science, however, the filmmakers opt for pulpy scares, having the survivors of the crash contend against an artificial intelligence gone rogue. In his review of the movie, Roger Ebert compared "Red Planet" to some of his favorite '50s science fiction, noting his appreciation for movies about scientists "trying to think their way out of a box that grows smaller every minute." When it comes to longevity, sometimes fun is better than smart.

10. MacGruber

If your career is balanced precariously between the work of prestige filmmakers and direct-to-video schlock, a feature-length adaptation of a "Saturday Night Live" skit might not be the most obvious move. Then again, "MacGruber" is no run-of-the-mill "Saturday Night Live" adaptation. Like so many other films by Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer — two-thirds of the Lonely Island team — "MacGruber" is a cult classic, a series of gags so brilliantly stupid that it took audiences a decade to appreciate the comedy that was right in front of their eyes.

In the film, Kilmer takes a rare villainous turn as Dieter Von Cunth, an arms dealer and the arch-nemesis of Will Forte's title character. Despite having several comedic turns under his belt, Kilmer has described his motivation for doing "MacGruber" as an opportunity to claw his way back into doing comedies after years of dramas. "It's weirdly hard to get a comedy if you're serious actor," he told AMC in 2010. "They don't let you." For those who had forgotten the broad humor of "Top Secret!" and "Real Genius," "MacGruber" was a welcome reminder that Kilmer is a pretty funny comedian, straight man or otherwise.

9. The Ghost and the Darkness

With all due respect to the '70s, the late '90s were a golden age for animal-driven horror films. Audiences were treated to films like "Anaconda," "Deep Blue Sea," "Bats," and "Lake Placid" in short order; still, none of those films compare to the big-budget experience of Stephen Hopkins' "The Ghost and the Darkness." Produced by Gale Anne Hurd and shot by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, "The Ghost and the Darkness" walks the line between prestige studio fare and old-school creature feature. It's a winning combination.

Kilmer plays John Patterson, a military engineer sent to Kenya to complete construction on a troublesome bridge. When a pair of lions begins to pick off the construction crew, Patterson takes it upon himself to protect his coworkers. Based on real-life events — the Tsavo man-eaters are estimated to have killed as many as 135 people – "The Ghost and the Darkness" made great use of its on-location shoot and squeezes genuine jump scares out of its cast of talented animal performers. It's not too much of a stretch to say that this is the mid-'90s equivalent of A24 horror. Just remember to give Kilmer a pass on his come-and-go Irish accent.

8. Spartan

While many might describe Kilmer as a '90s movie star, some of the actor's most interesting work did not happen until he had already begun to fade from public view. It was then that Kilmer worked with directors like Francis Ford Coppola ("Twist"), Werner Herzog ("Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans"), and David Mamet, the last of whom cast Kilmer in his standout political thriller "Spartan." One could argue that "Spartan" was Kilmer's last truly great leading man performance — that is, unless you count Kilmer's performance in Harmony Korine's segment of "The Fourth Dimension," which I absolutely do (it's now streaming in its entirety on VICE's YouTube channel, by the way).

For much of the first hour, "Spartan" operates like a procedural thriller, giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the lengths the Secret Service will go to recover a member of the president's family. This offers Kilmer some of his best moments; his character is one of discipline, and watching Kilmer adapt without question to uncertain scenarios elevates the already-sharp writing. When the movie pivots to paranoia and conspiracy, Mamet and Kilmer partner to deliver what film critic Matt Zoller Seitz once called "the richest post-9/11 treatment of revenge thus far."

7. The Salton Sea

If the late-'90s were the era of the Tarantino-inspired, then the early-'00s belonged to filmmakers influenced by the work of Guy Ritchie. "The Salton Sea," the first film by journeyman director D.J. Caruso, might be nothing more than an Americanized version of "Snatch," but a dynamic cast of character actors keeps the movie from ever feeling less than entertaining. Throw in Kilmer in a mode we now recognize as his best — strung out and despondent — and you might be surprised to see just how well "The Salton Sea" has aged.

In the film, Kilmer plays Danny Parker, a criminal informant who parlays his addictions into a series of high-profile busts. Or does he play Tom Van Allen, a grieving widower blinded by the need for vengeance? Regardless, Park-slash-Van Allen finds himself at the mercy of cruel drug dealer Pooh-Bear — an unforgettable turn by Vincent D'Onofrio — and in the debt of Jimmy (Peter Sarsgaard), his one true friend. Ostensibly a showcase for character actors and nonlinear storytelling, "The Salton Sea" is ultimately a film about the genuine friendships you find in life, even on your way to the bottom.

6. Heat

What could possibly be said about Michael Mann's "Heat" that hasn't already been covered? Not only has the film been the subject of countless essays and retrospectives, it was also the inspiration for a podcast that went minute-by-minute through the film over the course of 166 episodes. Hell, Mann himself appeared for the podcast's series finale, weighing on the final 60 seconds of his classic film. So, yes, in the one-in-a-million odds that you are reading through a list of the best Val Kilmer performances and still haven't seen "Heat," you should probably, like, do that.

But let us take a second and acknowledge the best moment in the movie. While the film is hailed as a showcase for stars Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, it is the final moment between Kilmer's Chris Shiherlis and Ashley Judd's Charlene Shiherlis that always breaks my heart. In that moment, when Charlene gives the signal and Chris drives off in a daze, the film's mantra is put to the ultimate test. In a movie with a lot of big emoting, it is a pair of silent facial expressions that drive the dagger down the deepest.

5. Real Genius

Not every '80s comedy worth watching was directed by John Hughes. "Real Genius," the 1985 comedy directed by Martha Coolidge, may have cast a teenage Gabriel Jarret in the central role, but much of the movie is about the perilous transition to adulthood. Kilmer plays Chris Knight, a Pacific Tech senior who realizes that his genius might send him down a few career paths he has no interest in traveling. And why would he? In the world of "Real Genius," the adults are either corrupt or outright murderous.

Knight is the kind of character that gets immortalized on posters in high school bedrooms around the world. Clever, creative, and with an anti-authority streak that puts John Cusack's characters to shame, Knight established Kilmer as the Hollywood heartthrob he never wanted to be. By never tipping too far into the sex comedy or nerd stereotypes that might have otherwise dated it, "Real Genius" remains a classic film about the moral burden of technology and the crushing expectations of early success. Oh, and yes, you most certainly can buy all of Knight's incredible t-shirts on the Val Kilmer website.

4. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Even without the benefit of hindsight, it would not be outrageous to say that Val Kilmer was the safest bet on the set of "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang." Shane Black was a Hollywood screenwriter who had never directed before and was nearly a decade removed from his last produced screenplay. Meanwhile, Robert Downey Jr. was still a recovering addict who was blacklisted by most Hollywood studios. That makes "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" a film made by and with talent that had nothing left to lose, which is probably one of the reasons why it's so damn good.

The result is a sharp neo-noir and buddy comedy that digs into the artificial nature of the film industry. Neither Kilmer nor Downey are truly the straight man; both actors talk too fast for one to be labeled the comedic relief. Instead, "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" allows the actors to play off of each other to great effect, with Downey playing dumb and Kilmer adopting a world-weary air that locks in the character. Black's script is wickedly funny, but the chemistry between the two leads makes the whole thing work. If you have a physical copy of the film, be sure to check out the DVD commentary for an extra layer of fun.

3. The Doors

Over the course of his career, Kilmer has demonstrated true skill at playing iconic characters that fall somewhere between a commercial and a critical success. One such character is Jim Morrison in "The Doors." It's hard to imagine another actor putting this much effort into a role and not emerging as a superstar capable of punching their own ticket anywhere they please. For Kilmer, though, this is just one of a handful of such roles, any one of which most actors would be lucky to call their own.

Much of "The Doors" is standard musical biopic stuff — the fame, the fall, and the addictions that popped up along the way — and Oliver Stone fails to mine many of the characters' relationships for any hidden depth. But Kilmer himself is a whirlwind, portraying Morrison across several time periods with uncanny physical and vocal accuracy. Where "The Doors" really shines is in the music; the scope and quality of these in-movie performances are so dynamic that it often feels like Stone has used actual concert photography in his narrative feature. When the songs start, "The Doors" is a truly special film.

2. Tombstone

If you were raised on '80s and '90s action movies, then "Tombstone" is pretty much the platonic ideal of a movie cast. And part of the appeal is that it should not exist; by all accounts, Kurt Russell pushed this one across the finish line almost single-handedly, rewriting the script and even ghost-directing most of the film when replacement director George P. Cosmatos failed to mesh with the cast and crew. The fact that "Tombstone" manages to be good — if not a little old-fashioned by western standards — is a borderline miracle.

But this miracle pales in comparison to Kilmer's performance as Doc Holliday, a role that eclipses everything and everyone in its orbit (and only relinquishes the spotlight in the moments when Kilmer is offscreen). Kilmer has spoken often about how everything flowed from the accent, a long-dead Southern dialect that informed his physicality as well, and it is the unusual performance in which every decision seems to further elevate the character on the screen. Holliday also seems to be the rare instance in which an actor's fandom is centered on some of his favorite work; one needs only to visit Kilmer's website to see how thoroughly the actor has embraced "Tombstone" as part of his legacy.

1. Wonderland

If there is one thing that connects Kilmer's otherwise eclectic body of work, it is his penchant for biography. The actor is never better than when he was asked to bring a historical figure to life; from Mark Twain to Jim Morrison, Kilmer seems to relish opportunities to inhabit spaces occupied by another (especially when that person struggled with the demons of addiction). This is why it's surprising that Kilmer's performance as adult film star John Holmes in "Wonderland" is so often overlooked. It is a gripping tale of stardom gone sour, a tale that is also Hollywood's favorite narrative preoccupation.

Set against the backdrop of the 1981 Laurel Canyon murders, "Wonderland" focuses on Holmes — once one of the most recognizable, uh, "faces" in adult movies — as he helps plan a drug-fueled heist. Director James Cox shoots the film from the perspectives of the police, the survivors, and even the wife and girlfriend that Holmes so often abuses, but it is Kilmer's performance that holds the entire film together. In his hands, Holmes is a man so skilled at manipulation that he convinces himself of his own lies. The resulting performance is arguably the highlight of Kilmer's career, equal parts charisma and cowardice played out in pure, late-disco splendor.