A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
The opening credits began with the name “Val Kilmer,” and when the movie opened, with the assignment of an FBI agent to investigate a murder on an Indian reservation in South Dakota, I waited for Kilmer's first appearance. I had admired his performance as Jim Morrison so much in “The Doors” that I was eager to see what he would do next. The FBI agent was stopped by an Indian lawman, he was given a speeding ticket, he met with a veteran FBI man already on the scene, and only then, some 20 minutes into the movie, did I recognize that I had been watching Kilmer all along - that he was the agent.
Kilmer's anonymity was not a trick of makeup or lighting. He plays the role unadorned, his hair cut short and neatly combed, his shirt buttoned, his tie in a neat knot. It is something inside Kilmer that seems to conceal him; he is this straight-arrow, conservative, by-the-numbers FBI agent, just as in “The Doors” he was the Dionysian rock druggie Morrison, and it simply happens that there is no common reference between the two characters. He is so inside the one that you cannot get a glimpse of the other.
If there is an award for the most unsung leading man of his generation, Kilmer should get it. In movies as different as “Real Genius,” “Top Gun,” "Top Secret!" and the made-for-cable “Billy the Kid,” he has shown a range of characters so convincing that it's likely most people, even now, don't realize they were looking at the same actor.
In “Thunderheart,” he plays agent Ray Levoi, who is at first undemonstrative and even rigid in his dealings with the locals. He's like one of those cops who is blind to the human situation because he's preoccupied with running the rule book through his mind. He's assigned to the case on the reservation on the unconvincing grounds that he is one-fourth Indian. His first contact is the Native American lawman, played by Graham Greene Oscar-nominated last year for his work in ("Dances with Wolves"). Soon he encounters agent Frank Coutelle, played by Sam Shepard as a laconic cynic. And not long after he meets a schoolteacher (Sheila Tousey) who provides a breath of romantic interest - although the movie has the originality to let it be a subtle breath, and not center the whole story on it.