- Rated R
- Buy the BD
All photos © Relativity Media
Reviewed by Bob Westal
etween exacting justified revenge on Osama bin Laden and the rescue of two aid workers during this year's State of the Union speech, Navy SEALs have been generating plenty of good press lately. Now, they've provided what is almost certainly an unprecedented level of cooperation for an action film, but I'm betting the PR bonanza won't likely extend to many positive reviews.
Easily one of the glossiest productions to ever feature a largely non-professional cast, "Act of Valor" stars, we are told, actual active duty SEALs – identified by rank and first name only – mixed in with professional actors playing assorted bad guys and victims. The story, as far as it goes, deals with a mission to rescue a Scrabble-playing CIA operative (Roselyn Sánchez, "Without a Trace") tortured and held captive by Latin American narco-terrorists. That operation then leads the SEALs to a more important mission. They must interrupt a massive act of terror involving a captured Russian smuggler (Alex Veadov) and assorted Chechen Jihadis sneaking into the U.S. via a secret network of tunnels underneath the Mexican border. (So much for an electrified fence!)
First-time feature directors Mike "Mouse" McCoy and Scott Waugh are former stuntmen, and the earlier action sequences are, for the most part, effectively handled. Even better, the cooperation of the U.S. Navy pays off with some amazing views of military hardware that could have made for a terrific 30 minute IMAX film. However, when it comes to glorifying the U.S. military in dramatically compelling fashion, the ghost of such great propagandists as Navy man John Ford can rest very easy. Among many other issues, there's a reason why old-fashioned, morale-boosting Hollywood war films were populated by trained actors. They can act.
The lone SEAL who does manage to make an impression here is, logically enough, interrogator Senior Chief Van O. An improvised dialogue between him and Alex Veadov's cowardly dope smuggler and terrorist enabler is kind of awful but also oddly fascinating, complete with an off-the-wall reference to the "Star Trek" TV series. It's also notable that the smuggler is turned with entirely verbal velvet glove/iron hammer techniques. No Jack Bauerism required.
Now, I should add that it’s more than possible to make a really good movie with non-actors, but there's a reason that such films have tended to take a semi-documentary approach. The high gloss of "Act of Valor" and the fact that directors Waugh and McCoy seem to have worked hard to try and turn their inexperienced stars into traditional movie characters backfires rather miserably. An approach that borrowed more from "The Battle of Algiers" or "United 93" could have made all the difference.
It gets worse. Lengthy narration is a dangerous tactic even for the most gifted filmmakers using top-drawer actors (no, I'm not thinking of Terrence Malick and "The Tree of Life.” Okay, maybe I am), but for directors McCoy and Waugh and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad ("300"), it's disastrous. They really want us to love and admire these guys, but they don't get anywhere near their objective until much too late.
The filmmakers do try to work around their cast's limitations. They frequently cut away from our warrior heroes to the vicious deeds of their nemeses. This includes an early sequence which borders on the exploitative as scores of Filipino children are apparently incinerated along with a U.S. diplomat.
Things improve when the SEALs get their orders, and the first rescue sequence is fairly exciting stuff. McCoy and Waugh keep things visually simple and we can actually follow just how and why certain bad guys are killed and certain other things blow up (real good). We also get some exciting views of parachute drops and underwater footage that blows the spectacular submarine battle from the 1965 James Bond monster hit, "Thunderball," out of the water. There is also a certain amount of wonkish detail which will no doubt please military buffs, though they may find themselves better edified by a novelization "presented" by Tom Clancy.
Of course, the one thing we don't get is any sort of moral complexity or controversy. The bad guys are indubitably evil and there is next to no moral grandstanding. One area where the film feels quite real to me is that these SEALs are all about getting the job done; policy and ideology are somebody else's problem. Far less realistically, there is never any danger that the SEAL team will, however unwillingly, cause even one civilian casualty.
All in all, "Act of Valor" plays like just another movie fantasy, only less entertaining. The film becomes increasingly tedious in its second half as the action gets more frenetic and haphazard and the threat harder to swallow. It's all mostly a loss. That is, until the final sequence, when the cost of battle is finally explored and we see on the faces of the film's non-actors – not only SEALs but actual family members – the shadow of real grief. For a moment, the word "valor" actually means something.
Two-Disc Blu-ray Review:
"Act of Valor" arrives on Blu-ray with a number of good extras, including an engaging audio commentary with directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, interviews with all seven active duty SEALs who appear in the movie, a series of brief featurettes on making the film, shooting with live fire and more, and the usual DVD and digital copies.