Starring active duty U.S. Navy SEALs and inspired by true events, Act of Valor is a unique theatrical experience. It's a fast-paced global thriller with equal parts action and patriotism, bombarding the audience with so much of both that it occasionally feels as if we're watching a documentary and always feels like we're watching a piece of propaganda. The acting and story leave much to be desired, but that doesn't seem to matter as much here as it does in the average movie. I'm not sure if Act of Valor totally succeeds, but I'm all for studios taking a chance on movies like this rather than churning out interchangeable garbage like Just Go With It.
Act of Valor
Directors: Mike "Mouse" McCoy and Scott Waugh
Starring: Active Duty Navy SEALs, Roselyn Sanchez
When a CIA agent is captured, a group of SEALs is called to action to retrieve her. But soon they discover a terrorist plot to infiltrate America with untraceable explosives, and the group realizes it's in for much more than a simple snatch and grab. As the clock ticks down to another devastating attack on American soil, the elite unit travels the globe until it reaches a climactic showdown with the enemy that will decide the fate of their country.
Originally intended as a training video for the Navy, the footage impressed the brass so much that they shifted the concept to a documentary. Then writer Kurt Johnstad (300, Man of Steel) was brought on to craft the basis for the fictional story and the decision was made to have the film star active duty SEALs. At my screening, the directors came out and introduced the movie to clarify some aspects of the production. Though the story is fictional, everything that happens in the film has actually happened in real life to the SEALs at one time or another. (The directors went out of their way to say they didn't bring in "some Hollywood writer" to make it all up.) All of the action sequences in the movie were tactically choreographed by the SEALs themselves, using up-to-date technology and providing an unparalleled look into the real strategy of combat situations. Actual weapons were used during filming, and the directors also revealed that this is the first film since the 1920s that uses live ammunition on set (though they didn't specify how much, since some sequences are clearly not using real ammo).
As one would expect, the soldiers' acting is atrocious - distractingly bad. Luckily the movie doesn't require these guys to show a lot of emotion; instead, it wisely relies on action to steer the story. The action sequences are impressive, utilizing a lot of first person POV techniques that actually make the film feel more like a live action video game than a traditional movie. That means two things: video games are getting really damn realistic these days, and the missions these guys have to deal with in real life are insane. Since I'm not a hardcore gamer, I wasn't aware of all of the ins and outs of tactical missions like these, but the film does a great job of pulling you into their world and, at the same time, keeping it easy to understand. One scene shows a soldier throwing a remote control plane into the air before his unit enters an enemy compound; using the built-in video camera on the plane, the soldier can alert his men to the exact location of their targets. It's in these kind of insightful moments that the movie really shines.
One thing I'll say about video games, though: in a lot of them (especially now), the characters are far more fleshed out than the heroes of this movie. It's ironic that my biggest complaint - acting issues aside - is a lack of interesting characters, given the choice they made to go with real people, presumably because they thought they could portray themselves better than professional actors. It's a shame, too, considering the powerful relationships these guys must have with each other to face seemingly insurmountable odds on a regular basis, and how almost none of that comes across in the final product. Though we're ostensibly following this tight knit group together through the film, we're only really given two guys to concentrate on, and only one of them has any emotional weight to him at all (the typical "pregnant wife back home" bit). Glance down the shelves at your local video game store and you'll see hundreds of characters that have more depth, emotion, and personality than the guys depicted on screen here.
Act of Valor is an interesting experiment. If you're willing to overlook bad acting and a rote storyline in favor of patriotic realism, then you'll dig it. It may have been designed to do for the SEALs what Top Gun did for Navy fighter pilots, but you can't underestimate the power of personality in stuff like that - like him or not, the star power of Tom Cruise was a large part of why Top Gun was so successful. There's no comparable personality here, but character is sacrificed for an in-depth look at how this elite force operates. It's not a perfect trade-off, but at least it leaves us with a compelling - if predictably one-sided - result. Until next time...