Film portrays “Valor,” but leads can’t “Act”

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Real Navy SEALs make up the cast of "Act of Valor," demonstrating their refined combat skills and bravery, but not much acting prowess.

By Chris Francis, Editor-In-Chief

When an action movie features gunfights with live ammunition, you know it means business. And when those real, deadly bullets are being fired by the world’s most rigorously trained soldiers, you know the action scenes are in good hands.

Fighting against terrorist conspirators both in real life and fiction, a cast of active Navy SEALs serves as Act of Valor’s main selling point. Everything they do in the film is exactly what they do in the field, and they are the best in the world at doing it.

Set in the modern day, SEAL team “Blackbeard” is deployed to South Africa to rescue a captured CIA agent, but the information they recover reveals a far larger scheme of international terrorism than anticipated.

The movie plays on all our contemporary national security fears. Jihadist terrorists, suicide bombers, Mexican drug cartels smuggling across the border—the movie uses widespread media fears to put its audience in the right mindset and make them root for the SEALs when America saves the day.

But, for a film supplied with military personnel and equipment, it manages to take on a less propaganda-like stance than expected.

“Your country is, knowingly or unknowingly, participating in the genocide of my people, and as long as we are not safe, neither are you,” says the Chechnyan Muslim terrorist leader to the American government in a classic video message. Seeing as many politicians are still insisting all anti-American terrorists attack us because they hate freedom, this is a refreshingly nuanced stance.

Of course, the idea is never visited again beyond its 10 seconds of screen time. The film would much rather focus its nuance and realism on showing how devastatingly badass the SEALs are.

It may not be as flashy as most action movies, but the visceral reality of the soldiers’ skills and tactics along with the filming style, with liberal use of first-person shots, reveal the pitiably childish spectacle of other action films. These guys are the real action heroes.

And they aren’t exactly the pretty kind either. Since Act of Valor is essentially trying to glorify the SEALs, it doesn’t get its hands too dirty in the issue of SEALs being KIA, but it allows for a few realistic deaths and brutal injuries to let people know these operations are life-threatening. But there is certainly not enough emphasis on this to show exactly how devastating war can be.

Realistic combat doesn’t necessarily mean quality performance. They may be able to tread water for an hour with 100 pounds of equipment and swim with their hands and feet bound, but the Navy SEALs in this movie can’t act.

With the exception of a foul-mouthed, heavily bearded SEAL interrogator, every time a SEAL talks to anything other than his headset, you feel you’re the one suffering an hour-long water treading exercise.

Though you only get little bits of SEAL acting at the very beginning, it sets the movie up for one of its worst downfalls.

All the firefights involve heavily armed, expertly trained SEALs against groups of rag-tag cartel thugs. Everyone knows who’s going to win. So the tension falls on wanting the individual SEALs to survive. But since they all fail terribly at creating believable characters, it’s hard to get invested that much.

The CIA agent (Roselyn Sanchez) gives us a little reason to care, but she disappears along with the cohesion of the plot after the first act. All dramatic tension is dissolved after this point.

The bad guys pick up the slack almost too well. Jason Cottle and Alex Veadov as a Croatian jihadist and South American smuggler have all the energy and conviction that’s lacking in the SEALs. When the bad guys inspire more sympathy than the heroes, that’s a problem.

But not even they can help the convoluted pacing. Trying too hard to follow after a Modern Warfare video game title, Act of Valor sends its SEALs all over the world on a collection of missions, but it all starts to feel the same after a while.

There’s so little sense of how much time has passed, how the conflict has changed or what’s really going on at any given moment. It’s easy to give in and just watch things get shot and blow up. It’s the most engaging and viscerally realistic shooting and blowing up you will see, but the movie’s second act still falters severely.

Act of Valor picks itself up and dusts itself off for the end. Rushing into a new danger and racing the clock, it feels like the SEALs might actually lose. The long lost tension is built up for a final, satisfying climax.

If you’re a military buff, you’ve already seen this movie at least twice. If not, the grab-bag of excellent and terrible makes it a hard sell. But if you meet a SEAL in a bar or something, buy the guy a beer. He’s way more badass than you’ll ever be.