If you’ve been paying attention to Act of Valor’s aggressive marketing campaign, you’re aware that it’s a fictional film starring real-life active-duty Navy SEALs that aims for as much realism as possible in its depiction of their tactics and missions. That’s a fascinating concept and it’s been seamlessly executed by filmmakers Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh. Initially conceived as a training film, the picture gradually evolved into the hybrid that it is once the co-directors sold the SEALs on the project, proposing to “take Top Gun, pull Maverick out and put in the real Maverick,” as Waugh told the Los Angeles Times.
But at the end of the day, this is a long-winded SEALs recruitment tool, a noble gesture that’s just not sufficient basis for a feature film. The usual cynicism with which one would greet a feature-length ad doesn’t apply because, obviously, if there’s any group that deserves this sort of heroic treatment, the SEALs are it. The worldview on display here is aggressively simplistic, of course, but the essential, elemental purpose behind the picture is a noble one — paying tribute to these soldiers who put themselves in extreme harm’s way for the rest of us.
That sentiment alone can’t sustain more than 100 minutes of compellingly crafted but repetitive action, tagged to dramatic filler that’s so one-dimensional and underwritten that it’s barely even there. The thin plot, such that it is, pits SEAL Team 7 against cartoonish Eastern European terrorists plotting attacks against the United States. This spurs a rescue mission in the Costa Rican jungle, a long-winded shootout in cartel-controlled Mexico, and other similar enterprises.
The action scenes are elaborate and fiery events, full of believable-sounding SEAL jargon and brisk, expert violent maneuvers. The added authenticity that comes with casting real SEALs kicks in as the camera dives off choppers with them, submerges next to them in water, and hurls us straight into the hyperactive line of fire. Save for when the filmmakers indulge in the forced first-person POV style that’s best left for video games, the scenes achieve an involving mix of documentary grittiness and heightened cinematic spectacle.
Yet the action sequences are set-pieces that unfold within a narrative vacuum. They don’t resonate as anything but technical achievements. That’s partially because the mundane story barely resonates, seemingly drawn straight from the sub-par ’80s action reservoir.
But the movie ultimately plays out as little more than a curiosity because the characters don’t matter. Our heroes, Chief Dave and Lt. Rorke (the SEALs are not identified or credited with any more specificity than that) are indistinguishable deep-voiced bores, a propagandist’s dream vision of what rugged, handsome, manly SEALs should be. They talk mission, mission, mission, except for when they spout dull bromides about honor, valor, country or fighting hard, quote Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, or deliver whatever other recruitment buzz words the screenplay musters.
One other problem: these men are surely great American heroes, but they can’t act. With one exception, a senior chief SEAL presumably playing himself to some degree, the soldiers deliver laughable dinner theater-caliber performances with some of the most awkward, amateurish line-readings imaginable. Of course, it feels tacky and seems strange to criticize Navy SEALs for their acting failures. It’s an odd inverse of the norm, in which one would bemoan a buff Hollywood action star’s inability to convincingly get into character as a soldier in some jingoistic junk. But that’s the world McCoy and Waugh have created, the product of this unusual fusion. In movies, characters matter, and no amount of earnest flag-waving can compensate for that.
The Upside: The movie pays tribute to a worthy subject and features some compelling action.
The Downside: The Navy SEALs who star in the film can’t act and the plot is thin, action flick gruel.
On the Side: I think it’s safe to assume that the Kathryn Bigelow-Mark Boal collaboration about Seal Team 6’s hunt for Osama Bin Laden will be a bit more interesting.