In Top Gun: Maverick, Val Kilmer shows a uniquely powerful performance. His character, Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, is still close friends with Tom Cruise’s character, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell because of the time whose experiences have been based on Val’s own experiences. It is easy for an individual to make a great impact when they take the opportunity.
Maverick and Iceman were two brash young fighter pilots in the Top Gun movie in 1986. They had a lot of the same characteristics, but Maverick had problems with authority, while Iceman read from the standard playbook. By the end of that movie, they had been bonded of combat by relying on each other to survive.
“Maverick” finds a police force assembled later in the film largely the same — still disobeying orders, still buzzing towers — if calmed and weathered a bit, and struggling with their failure as surrogate father to their late best friend’s son. It also finds Maverick and Ice 35 years into what has turned out to be a very deep and brotherly friendship, with now-Adm. Kazansky having saved them both.
The scene has a poignancy that comes from the fact that Kilmer, a chameleon of the ’90s and beyond, was struck with cancer in the 2010s.
The actor had a hard time with chemotherapy, but he is able to speak after multiple tracheostomies. He wrote about his experience in an autobiography, “I’m Your Huckleberry: A Memoir” and on Amazon’s documentary “Val,” which contained the actor’s inside footage.
When his condition became known, he was written into the movie Top Gun: Maverick as having throat cancer. He says in “Huckleberry”, “It didn’t matter that the producers didn’t contact me. As the Temptations sang in the heyday of Motown soul, ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.'” In a 2013 interview with Larry King, he said that there would be no reason to come out with a film without him. It was Cruise, who had tried to push Kilmer into starring in the original, who convinced the producer Jerry Bruckheimer that they need Kilmer in “Maverick”. “’We have to have Val. We want him back. To make sure we get him in the film’ Bruckheimer told People last summer.”
It was a good move for Cruise that Kilmer reprised his role because Cruise does his best work during scenes with Iceman. Even before Kilmer appears on screen, the moment when Maverick learns Iceman has returned from the battle against cancer is a very tender piece of acting. He has a surprised look on his face. He looks like someone finally admitted something to themselves, and he feels relieved that they’ve finally said it out loud. There’s almost a smile on his face; a smile of confirmation, of facing the worst. Its presence is appropriate and saddening.
But the interaction between Maverick and Iceman on screen is where we see something really alive. There’s communication happening. We see a relationship informed by years of blanks we can fill in ourselves: Iceman maturing past his brash youth and becoming the leader he was born to be;
After making two successful movies together, Maverick and Mr. Stunt Double became close friends, and even brothers after a long creative partnership. The writing by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and longtime Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie; the unobtrusive direction by Joseph Kosinski; and most of all the settled, lived-in performances by Kilmer make this movie great to watch again.
Kilmer is a talented actor whose skills are seen in movies and on the stage. His voice is his most powerful tool. He gets the role of an unemployed man in his late 50s or early 60s who has grown up working with horses, while his little brother takes over the family business.
Iceman is an Admiral now and understands the system better than ever. He no longer has cancer in his condition, he is wiser and being more helpful to Maverick now, who’s trying to hold together all that he has lost. Kilmer, playing the part beautifully, conveys just all this in this brief appearance.
And he worked with his scene partner to have a better performance. Maverick finally releases his emotions. He always has it in him to tell the truth, but he doesn’t know how to bring himself to do it. Iceman is able to help him break through this barrier as well. It’s among Cruise’s most believable moments on screen.
When Iceman finally speaks aloud, the emotion he conveys — on screen and in your heart as you watch — will have you looking back over his long career wondering how he’s never been nominated for an Oscar.
At the end of the movie, Kilmer’s silence is what carries the movie.