For anyone not in the know, the SEAL teams are the Navy’s contribution to the U.S.’s special forces command; elite commandos trained to go into highly dangerous situations and execute bold operations that a saner man might balk at. They are among the best soldiers in the U.S. Military, highly thought of throughout the special forces world, and after recent exploits such as the Osama bin Laden raid have emerged military media darlings.
It’s no surprise then that Hollywood would like to take advantage of that free marketing and the big idea this time is to put actual active duty Navy SEALs into a standard Hollywood action piece. The result of that marriage is exactly what you think it is.
The brainchild of stuntmen-turned-directors Scott Waugh and Mike Mouse’ McCoy, on its surface “Acts of Valor” is actually a decently put together adrenaline servicing machine. Waugh and McCoy’s action sequences (which make up at least 75% of “Valor’s” 100 minute running time) are well designed and cleanly laid out, often with some clever visual hijinks from cinematographer Shane Hurlbut (“Terminator Salvation”).
And the SEALs (uncredited at their own choice) themselves are clearly authentic in their planning and execution of each mission. As long as you don’t listen to them speaking, their assault on a drug compound early in the film is one of the best action sequences of the past few months. And that’s about all the good there is that can be said about “Act of Valor.”
With the camera frequently shifting to an on-helmet perspective giving you a you are there’ feeling, the film seeks as much as it can to make you feel as if you are a SEAL team member, rather than some guy sitting in a theater. As long as you can ignore the fact that they’re chasing a wannabe Bond villain who, among other things, showcases the extreme differences between having a professional actor and a professional soldier on camera every time he shows up.
After CIA Operative (Roselyn Sánchez) goes missing in Costa Rica, our SEAL team sets out to rescue her. In the process, they stumble onto a plot by the gun running drug dealer (Alex Veadov) holding her to arm his old Chechen friend turned Islamic terrorist who plans to send a group of suicide bombers across the US-Mexico border through drug tunnels to assault major U.S. cities.
Really it’s just a thin excuse to blow things up in scenic locales from Southeast Asia to Africa to Mexico, but good action movies have been made with worse intentions. However, it is a far stretch to combine the escapism of a standard action film with the authenticity the filmmakers obviously want to claim by using real soldiers as their leads.
Which is also the problem you would obviously expect. Just as I would not want actors trying to actually replace soldiers on the battlefield because they had done it in a movie once, the same is true the other way around. As good as they are at being SEALs, any attempt to showcase them as human beings disappears once they begin talking as they recite hackneyed dialogue stolen from a bad TV movie as if they were reading it from a cue card just off camera. And because the Navy demanded final cut, the SEALs themselves come across as simple and homespun as apple pie, uncomplicated and uninteresting.
What you end up with, more often than not, is a lot of jingoistic nonsense billing itself as a fable about warriors’ real lives. This can be done and be done well–Jerry Bruckheimer and Ridley Scott have managed it more than a few times–but neither the directors nor screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (“300”) are working at that skill level and it shows.
The filmmakers themselves certainly seem to realize this, keeping interpersonal dialogue to a minimum, mainly revolving around the squad’s lieutenant preparing to have his first child back home and his senior non-commissioned officer hazing him about it. Even the most ardent action film tends to keep the sequences to one per act, to give the characters time to breath. “Act of Valor” upends that dynamic in order to keep from showing its characters at all, but it’s too late.
They tried this sort of thing once before in the ’80s with Michael Biehn and Charlie Sheen, and ended up not getting much out of it but fodder for a Kevin Smith joke. Sometimes everything old does become new again. Sometimes, like “Act of Valor” it just stays old. And stale.
Yes, Navy SEALs do extraordinary things, and no, there’s nothing wrong with proclaiming that on film. But not like this.