BLOGS

Act of Valor: Reporting for Duty, Sir!

by Ethan Alter February 24, 2012 6:01 am
<i>Act of Valor</i>: Reporting for Duty, Sir!

The ads for the new combat movie/live-action video game Act of Valor trumpet the fact that the film follows the adventures of a team of Navy SEALs who are all played by... active duty Navy SEALs. And if that's not authentic enough for you, a short featurette that precedes the picture reveals that directors Mike "Mouse" McCoy and Scott Waugh were embedded amongst the troops to shoot many of the mission sequences, all of which employed live fire -- that means real, honest-to-God bullets. So yeah, whatever else you can say about Act of Valor, it's hard to argue that the movie doesn't strive to capture the reality of an actual SEAL team mission. Furthermore, we're sure that the onscreen platitudes that the soldiers offer up about the importance of brotherhood and family (scripted for them by 300 writer Kurt Johnstad) reflect how they feel in real life as well. While not explicitly a documentary, Act of Valor does feel like a relatively truthful representation of what a typical Navy SEAL thinks and experiences in the field.

On the other hand, there's an awful lot about this clunky, inert production that doesn't ring true in the slightest. That's probably due to the fact that Act of Valor started life as a Navy-financed training film before the decision was made to retrofit it into a theatrical feature, complete with things like "plot" and "character development." Given how half-heartedly those elements have been grafted on to the proceedings, the filmmakers would have been better off just releasing 90-minutes worth of well-filmed, if chaotically edited real-world Call of Duty-style missions (that video game feel is driven home by the numerous crosshair point of view shots that deliberately mimic the perspective of military-themed first person shooters), which is all the finished product really amounts to anyway. Here are the least believable parts of this supposedly realistic depiction of modern warfare:

The Globetrotting Story
Act of Valor starts off convincingly enough, with the kidnapping of an undercover CIA agent (one of the few roles in the movie played by a professional actress, Roselyn Sanchez) by a gang of drug dealers, leading the Agency to request the Navy's help in getting their operative back. This kind of simple, straightforward rescue scenario fueled any number of the '80s action movies that Act of Valor is clearly out to evoke (Missing In Action, Commando, etc. etc.) and it would have been enough to sustain this entire feature as well. Unfortunately, McCoy and Waugh use it as a prelude to a bigger plot that sets the SEALs on the trails of a drug dealer (Alex Veadov) and a jihadist (Jason Cottle) who have teamed up to plot a terror attack against America, a mission that takes them from the jungles of South America to the coast of Africa to the Mexico/America border. The way these storylines connect is unconvincing to say the least, as is a late-inning effort to shoehorn in the controversial subject of potential terrorists crossing into the U.S. via underground tunnels controlled by Mexican drug cartels. That supposed threat -- the veracity of which is still hotly debated -- is rendered so comically here, it comes across as sub-Tom Clancy level fiction instead of the unpleasant reality the theory's proponents insist that it is.

The Bad Guys
It goes without saying that there are terrorists out there looking to do America harm. But it's highly unlikely that they're the walking, talking bad action movie clichés that Johnstad has scripted here. Take Christo, the aforementioned Russian drug dealer: With his long, greasy hair, major five o'clock shadow and distinctly (and no doubt deliberately) effeminate voice and body language, he's like the villain that Chuck Norris/Sylvester Stallone/Arnold Schwarzenegger killed over and over again three decades ago. But at least he's got a distinguishable, if completely ridiculous, screen persona. The jihadist is just a generic angry dude, the stone-faced henchman that Norris/Stallone/Schwarzenegger had to defeat before taking on the big boss. The filmmakers have no interest in asking what led these men, or their legions of foot soldiers, to take this drastic course of action -- they're all just moving targets for the SEALs to shoot at.

All the Stuff About Fatherhood
While Act of Valor is mostly an ensemble movie depicting the actions of an entire SEAL unit, two soldiers in that squad do serve as the designated main characters. Their names in the movie (and in real life) are Lieutenant Commander Rorke and Special Warfare Operator Chief Dave, although good luck trying to keep track of which is which since they have interchangeable personalities. Actually, there is one thing that separates them: Dave has a bunch of kids while Rorke is expecting his first, which becomes a frequent topic of conversation throughout the movie. (And if you're at all familiar with war movie clichés, you can probably guess how this piece of info impacts the fate of Rorke's onscreen counterpart.) Just to be clear, we're not dissing Rorke's excitement about becoming a dad. We're dissing the ham-fisted way it's been rendered in the script, with lots of stiff exchanges between Rorke and his pregnant wife and a lame joke about the horrors of diaper changing. ("My wife does all of that for me!" Chief Dave boasts at one point, as if that's somehow a badge of honor. Who woulda guessed that a simple dirty diaper could be a Navy SEAL's Kryptonite?)

That The Film Isn't Meant to be a Recruitment Tool
Both the Navy and the filmmakers have been coy about their ultimate intentions behind making this particular film in this particular way, but one imagines that they wouldn't be upset if it inspired an uptick in enlistment numbers. Look, we believe both McCoy and Waugh when they say they wanted to honor the SEALs who, after all, willingly and regularly put their lives on the line for this country and -- as recent real world events like the killing of Bin Laden has shown -- play a vital role in the contemporary military landscape. And, to the duo's credit, they take the sacrifice that comes with being a soldier seriously, even closing the film by listing the names of the SEALs that have lost their lives in the line of duty in recent years. But the bulk of the movie is more interested with presenting these guys as real-world superheroes who fight faceless, frequently nameless bad guys armed with the latest in weapons technology and battle tactics. Each battle is presented as the ultimate thrill ride instead of a matter of life and death. The best (if not necessarily the most "authentic") combat movies -- think Black Hawk Down, Full Metal Jacket and Platoon -- are those that at least address the fog of war and the toll it takes on a soldier's (to say nothing of a nation's) heart and mind. By focusing only on strategy and firepower, Act of Valor may accurately present how modern warfare is fought, but doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of why.

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