– Summary –
Director : Mike McCoy + Scott Waugh
Year Of Release : 2012
Principal Cast : Jason Cottle, Alex Veadov, Roselyn Sanchez, Nestor Serrano, Emilio Riviera, Ailsa Marshall, and anonymous US Navy SEALS.
Approx Running Time : 110 Minutes
Synopsis: A platoon of US Navy SEALS must rescue a CIA operative taken hostage by a cell of jihadists intent on detonating bombs within major American cities – they must also track down where these bombs are being made, and take out a group of terrorists trying to make it across the border from Mexico.
What we think : As an exercise in creative film-making, Act Of Valor is a stilted, overly procedural affair that makes war feel like a video game. While it is obviously in love with the SEAL operatives who work night and day to keep the US safe around the world, the film lacks substance beyond a jingoistic, “hoo-rah” level of kitsch. That’s not to say actual SEALS don’t deserve to have the spotlight shone upon them for what they do for our freedoms (actually, I’m sure a few of them might prefer the secrecy over this blatant propaganda effort); Act Of Valor is a credibly realistic, yet emotionally empty story, content to showcase the might and power of the US military at the expense of examining the complexity of modern warfare.
The US military is one of the mightiest organised forces in the world. They have one of the largest standing armies on Earth, and are one of the most technologically advanced when it comes to warfare. So how come all the movies made with tacit Department Of Defense agreement are so dumb? Arguably devised as a propaganda device to recruit more young, impressionable Americans into service, Act Of Valor might seem authentic, but I think the disservice it does to those watching it bears remembering: war is a brutal, deadly affair, and no matter how cool it might seem firing off automatic weapons and blowing stuff up, some people get killed doing it. The US Department of Defense, in its own way, parlays its considerable resources in portrayals of its technology on the screen in such a positive light, such a hearty good-old-boy tone, that it sometimes comes off as cheesy. I know, I’m damn sure the soldiers and their families believe in what they’re doing in these movies, but without a decent sense of balance narratively, without some kind of interpretation as to the right and wrong elements of the mission these guys go into, it reduces the impact of the villains to zero; the Bad Guys are generic stock characters, lacking any kind of nuance. While audiences from several decades ago probably wouldn’t mind the black and white depiction of the SEALS and the terrorist enemies, modern audiences have come to expect a “shades of grey” experience due largely to the effect of films such as Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker, and even the recent Zero Dark Thirty. There needs to be motivation for our actions, even in war. Does Act Of Valor provide that? Does the film not only take us into the procedural elements of a SEAL mission, but also into their heads and hearts as they battle to stay alive in the most harrowing and difficult of circumstances?
Act Of Valor made a point of marketing itself as starring actual Navy SEALS in its cast, not as supporting roles, but as the leads. The names of those SEALS are not included in the films credits, which means I have to forgo including them here – the majority of the supporting cast are actors, however. The film centers around a platoon of SEALS, led by Chief Dave and Lieutenant Rourke, who must undertake a mission to rescue a captured CIA operative. The operative, Morales (Roselyn Sanchez) has vital information on a potential terrorist cell planning to detonate bombs within the United States. After rescuing her, the team are then sent to follow a lead to capture more intel and locate the source of the bombs; the bombs are comprised of hundreds of ceramic ball-bearings hidden within a vest containing a high yield explosive substance, and these devices are undetectable to modern alert systems, such as metal detectors. As the mission progresses, the SEALS hunt down known smuggler Christo (Alex Veadov) and his accomplice Shabul (Jason Cottle), who are seeking to smuggle eight jihadists into America to bomb major population centers and create panic and financial ruin.
I’ll say one thing for Act Of Valor; it’s the closest thing to watching Call Of Duty brought to life. The film’s technical development, at least in terms of what was shown, is exceptionally cool looking, even if the emptiness of the narrative lumps the film like clagged glue. SEAL tactics and methods, in dealing with a mission, inserting into a hostile territory, and the way the platoon functions almost as a living entity itself, are superbly rendered. The SEAL actors who gave their time for this project obviously had a big hand in how things might go down in a variety of scenarios: the way they back each other up, move quietly and with little residual impact (at least, until the firefights begin), and how coordinated their plans are even in the event of a snafu, are professional and admirable. This is to be expected. Honestly, I did enjoy this facet of the film. And the firefights, when they come, are brutal: violence is depicted as real as possible, although in saying that, the directing team of McCoy and Waugh keep a lot of the civilian casualties dying off-screen (a massive explosion in the opening, which rips through a crowd of school children, isn’t seen so much as heard), leaving the more gruesome kills for the enemies of our heroes. It’s a subtle way of ensuring that the innocent victims are held in revered esteem, while the Bad Guy count is to be celebrated. Yes, I realize how jaded that sounds, but that’s how it appeared.
The film tries to give the story some sort of emotional weight, giving the bookending voice-over from a SEAL to a young boy the prominent placing over SEALS bonding with their families, surfing, and drinking beer; it’s that touching “we’re normal people too” moment that feels overt more than naturalistic. It’s there to ensure we tag these dudes as heroes no matter what. The somewhat saccharine way the film tries to bleach them into your “average Joe” reeks of a sense of misplaced patriotism. The SEAL actors themselves are – as you’d expect from non-actors – terrible at delivering lines that aren’t instructional or directives. These guys talk the codes and lingo-jingo all day, and that stuff translates on-screen to a bunch of nonsensical, indistinguishable military-speak; this is fine, though, because that’s what the film’s about. It’s when things get into the whole “if I die, take this letter to my wife” stuff that the film falls flatter than a dead al-Qaeda member. These guys can’t “act” naturally when they’re out of their comfort zone, and this element of the film ruins what precious little credence I was prepared to give it. That said, these moments are blessedly short, allowing the true focus of the film to shine through.
The film’s primary positive is its depiction of actual missions: the film contains three main sequences, one in the jungle of Costa Rica, the second on an island of Baja, California, and thirdly, a brutal assault on a factory on the Mexican/US border, over which lie a labyrinth of tunnels through which terrorists can walk across to the United States. The camera often reverts to a FPS-style angle, with weapons, heartbeat and breathing highlighted to approximate the actual look of going into combat. As mentioned, it’s very Call Of Duty: Black Ops. The action scenes are shot nominally with live rounds – except for parts where people are shown being killed, of course – and this adds convincing weight to the legitimacy of these sequences. Instead of obvious film “squibs” detonating, real tracer rounds and real bullets slam into cars, walls and any other thing that gets in these guys’ way. The way the SEALS movie through buildings, silently hunting their targets and eliminating enemy combatants, is genuinely tense; you’re waiting for somebody to slip and crash into something that makes a lot of noise, but they don’t. This isn’t a “movie” scenario, we’re watching real SEALS do their thing for real. Regardless of all the other elements in the film that made me roll my eyes, this stuff was genuinely riveting.
As much as I wanted to stand up and say I thoroughly bought into the world of Act Of Valor, I couldn’t. I’m not an American, so I guess this gung-ho “get it done” style of military-porn doesn’t jibe for me like it might back in the States, but one can only imagine the general sense of dismay many must have felt when this film came out. Characters are rote, generic and poorly developed. They’re cardboard figurines on a childs floor, moving across the globe like James Bond only without the sexy women and cool gadgets. The action sequences are outstandingly shot, and certainly contains plenty of moments for the fist to pump and the blood to seethe with patriotism, but when there’s no gunfire, the story falls flat on its face. Lacking the complexity of most modern war films, this extensive recruitment movie serves to remind us all of just one thing: the guys with the guns don’t (and shouldn’t) make the decisions. Act of Valor warrants one viewing simply for the battle sequences, but that’s about as much as I could handle without wanting to become an American myself.