Ask yourself seriously: Would you believe Val Kilmer if he told you he was a quarter Sioux? It’s possible. It was probably more plausible in 1992, when he starred in the crime thriller Thunderheart, and his face was less bound to the blockbuster roles he’s known for. But throughout this film, we watch the residents of a South Dakota Indian reservation stare meaningfully into his eyes, catching a glimpse of — something. A special, spiritual air. Something we, as viewers, can’t see, because we can’t help thinking: In three years, he will be Batman.

But let’s say you gave Kilmer the benefit of the doubt. If you’re willing to do so, then Thunderheart is a shiny arrowhead buried in the dirt, overcooked but overlooked. It’s really just a genre picture at heart, with a plot that could have been flavorless and generic in lesser hands. Thankfully, Director Michael Apted gives us a strong sense of place and a tense drama that’s played by a cast of bit players who take real delight in their lines.

While Hollywood birthed a rash of historical dramas in the early ’90s featuring Native American culture (The Last of the Mohicans, Dances With Wolves), Thunderheart takes a modern tact. The story drops us on to an impoverished Indian reservation in South Dakota, where camps have been drawn between violent activists demanding a return to traditional life and pro-government Indian militias. F.B.I. agent Ray Levoi (Kilmer) is sent to investigate the killing of a tribal leader, largely as a goodwill gesture: He’s a quarter-Sioux, a fact Levoi’s superiors seem to think will ease tensions in the volatile community.

But Levoi sees himself as a cowboy, not an Indian: he’s scrubbed himself of his quarter-Sioux heritage, settling comfortably into G-man blandness. For much of the movie, his chief identification is “hardass.” He spends a lot of time trying to get answers with his gun drawn, and even tackles the local sheriff in the middle of a religious ceremony. He makes a lousy community liaison.

Predictably, the residents return the treatment: They slam doors in his face and call him “the Washington redskin.” Well-known Oneida actor Graham Greene gets some delicious digs in as the folksy Sheriff Walter Crow Horse. His tracking skills allow him to read more in footprints then the skeptical Levoi gives him credit for. “You’re not a beer drinker,” Crow Horse says about Levoi’s own prints. “You’re one of those to-fu and pi-laff characters.”

Greene is a joy, lazily drawling out his dry, rustic wit in a way that makes you want to toss back a few beers with him. Sadly, the plot, weighed down by too many characters, doesn’t afford many of them the same characterization. Fred Ward is underused as a slimy militia leader, and Sheila Tousey does her best to lend three dimensions to a crusading schoolteacher who gets too close to the murder. Kilmer also seems straitjacketed, like he was straining to keep his smarm under control. As a leading role, however, it’s interesting to see him play something this understated, and watch his character’s sympathies flip.

Thunderheart could be at least twenty minutes shorter than it is. The plot drifts away from the murder as Levoi spends more time with an old medicine man and Sheriff Crow Horse, eventually rediscovering his heritage. These scenes are meaty, but the story is trying to balance too many plot threads. A number of scenes could have been easily cut or condensed without losing Levoi’s journey inside himself.

Patient viewers will ultimately be rewarded by a decent action picture with some sharp writing. It’s no vision quest, but still worth catching on TV.

Andrew Good is a film critic and writer living in San Diego.

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