Given that MacGruber is opening this week, I figured its villainous terrorist, Val Kilmer, would be an easy candidate for an entry in Their Best Roles. I was going to pick Gay Perry from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which is probably my favorite role of his, but as soon as I sat down to actually type those words, I realized they were wrong. Oh, I love Gay Perry, no doubt, but is it Kilmer's best role? This is harder than I thought it would be.
How about Doc Holliday in Tombstone, then? His take on the classic Western icon is arguably the most entertaining there is (I could watch Kilmer twirl and then holster that dinky little coffee cop all day long to great delight), but the trouble is, I actually don't think Tombstone is all that great of a film. Somewhere in his filmography there must exist the perfect balance between enjoyable, charismatic Val Kilmer and dead serious, chewing up the scenery Val Kilmer in a film that is an questionable triumph. Naturally I turned to his role as FBI profiler Jake Harris in Renny Harlin's supremely underrated Mindhunters to find the answer.
I'm kidding, of course. There is a role of his that I enjoy more than both Gay Perry and Doc Holliday, though: Chris Shiherlis in Michael Mann's Heat.
There are a number of reasons I think it's his best role, first and foremost being that this is a film where everyone is fighting for the limelight in the shadow of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. It's a tremendous ensemble film and all of the actors hold their own, no doubt, but at the end of the day they're still just supports for those two icons. However, Kilmer's Chris Shiherlis is the only character in the bunch that I can imagine anchoring a second story were someone to play Film God and make a prequel/sequel to Heat. Not that I actually want to see a Shiherlis-centric spin-off, but Kilmer brings enough heft to the otherwise supporting role that such a film could stand on his shoulders.
I also think the only reason that's true is because of Kilmer. The role itself isn't necessarily written with any more depth than say, Dennis Haysbert's Donald or Tom Sizemore's Michael, so it comes down to how much Kilmer brings to it. On the page, Chris is just a father that happens to be master bank robber Neil McCauley's (De Niro) bad-ass right hand man. On the screen, however, Chris is the most dynamic character of the entire ensemble.
Val Kilmer gives the character an appropriate professional confidence at all the right times, but he also knows how to expose the cracks in that armor. For me it all comes to a head toward the end of the film when Chris is recovering from his bullet wound and all he desperately wants to do is get back to his wife, Charlene, and son. It's a great emotional antidote to McCauley's "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner" mantra. Here we see the one man in the crew who is actually capable of forming such a strong attachment to a loved one. Which is why it's such a kick to the chest when a newly bandaged Chris tries to rendezvous with Charlene before fleeing town only to discover that the cops have already gotten to her.
However, his decision to once again leave her isn't the simple 30 second abandonment that McCauley gives to Eady at the first sign of the heat around the corner. There's a mutual understanding between the two and when Chris drives off screen (and out of the film) after Charlene's warning sign, there's a visible pain behind his eyes that makes it clear he plans on finding some way to get back to Charlene as soon as he can. No one even dies and yet it's the saddest moment of the movie. That's all due to Kilmer.
The man has had and continues to have a great career; and yes, I'm even including his recent slew of straight-to-video horror movies. I know that the obvious fan favorite role is going to be Doc Holliday, but I think because he's so great at playing the comedic rogue (and has done so so often) that people forget how subtle and nuanced his performances can be. And for me, no role embodies that aspect of Kilmer better than Chris Shiherlis.