Before Act of Valor begins we are shown a short intro narrated by the directors (Mike McCoy, Scott Waugh) explaining why they chose to cast real active duty Navy SEALs. These elite soldiers have hard-learned skills, mannerisms, muscle memory and a language that can’t be handed over to an actor to exhibit with the same conviction. Like watching Michael Jordan dunking or Muhammad Ali in the ring the SEALs are the very best at what they do. Watching them in the movie it’s clear that McCoy/Waugh made the right choice.
Act of Valor follows a team of soldiers sent who carry out a covert mission to recover a kidnapped woman. The person in question is a CIA agent and this was no random kidnapping. The female agent is investigating the activity of a series of bombings by a terrorist regime of Islamic extremists. Only this regime, headed by a ruthless idealist, has connections that go far deeper and plans that are deadlier than anyone can imagine. Some cite the villain as being a throwaway stereotype but his plan is one of the more diabolical to come across the screen in a while. These suicide bombers bring a sobering reality to the term homeland security.
Up front, what is probably the most amazing thing to see in Act of Valor are the devices and elements that go against Hollywood standbys. By that I mean the soldiers are not elite unstoppable machines kicking down doors guns blazing and no one depicted is a one man army. They are all human and depend on the cooperation and skills of the soldier on their right or on their left (or in a tree in the case of a Sniper). Far from being a recruitment video (but retaining the elite skill sets and firepower that is still pretty jaw dropping; the boat rescue was INSANE!) Act of Valor paints the Navy as effective but still very vulnerable. This is not a work of fiction or a video game. Even though the film does have elements of both this film depicts war and in war soldiers get shot, soldiers get injured and soldiers die.
This film is steeped in realism and McCoy and Waugh certainly do their best to get that across through the actions and emotions of the soldiers. Considering what you are seeing is more or less real (including using live fire at times) makes it even more astounding and awesome. Aside from that there’s a whole universe of acronyms and terminology getting thrown around fast and fluently from charismatic characters like Master Chief. In a way it’s almost like watching a foreign film, but that’s the point of it all; showing us something very few (or “damn few” as the SEALs say) will ever experience while impressing that their world is not glamorous. Action and video game junkies will certainly get their fill and then some, but those who aren’t in the armed services may not really connect with the SEALs or their families. But when all is said and done it’s not a film about one mission and then the care-free heroes ride off into the sunset. This one mission is their job, a day to day affair really, where risking their lives is their 9 to 5.
Act of Valor plays at being a blockbuster while contending with its modest budget. Also it really goes for the throat, in regards to action, but stops to show us, briefly, the endearing side of the heroes and their personal drive (family, children et al). Sadly the result is kind of a mixed bag that feels like 2 or 3 different stories trying to gel. We follow the characters from tender albeit quasi-cheesy moments, to the action set-pieces, to swift exposition/terminology, to exposition scenes with the villains and all with rough cuts and noticeable changes in cinematography between them. Some scenes are lit very warm tones, then the next scene is washed out and de-saturated followed by a subsequently dark scene. Also there’s no real time frame to the story. It seems like a quick mission but the undertones tell us this is most likely going on over the course of several months. It’s not bad film making, just unrefined.
As far as the narrative though, the film feels disjointed and it’s tough watching something happen to characters that you’re supposed to feel for but just never happens. Some of the story has a documentary feel to it, but it shifts focus a little too quickly that it loses cohesion to the larger story. With many characters you can’t get back story on/become endeared to everyone and the efforts to humanize the SEALs didn’t, for me, come across as intended. Covered in camouflage/helmets/goggles and with much of the action done FPS style it was a little tough to know who was who which didn’t help endear all SEALs to us. But when everything comes full circle there’s still something felt for the SEALs, their struggles and their losses. The realism in the firefights is intense and the emotions, while muddy and semi-forced, were still tangible. It’s that realism that is a driving force behind the film showing the SEALS as a team (with an entire network of support) as human beings.
I’m not going to lie, when I heard that this was going to be a film with no real actors I was a bit wary of the outcome. Sure it would be Militarily accurate showcasing the team’s gritty ops, but would it be compelling? Even as the story began with the main SEAL narrating a letter being written this looked suspiciously like a Lifetime movie. Directors McCoy and Waugh show not only a reverence to the SEALs with Act of Valor but it also, in a way, is a love letter to all our armed forces. The cinematography and editing of the firefights are fierce. They combine not only the Hollywood quality explosive action but also the claustrophobia/adrenaline-rush of battle. While we aren’t 100% vested in the characters by the time the credits roll there’s slightly more realism, emotion and a connection than you’ll find in most check your brain, muzzle flash happy actioners. That, regardless of the narrative problems, again shows that war is not glamorous and that is about as real as it gets.