What have you done today? Probably nothing, says “Act Of Valor,” the new military recruitment film from directors ‘Mouse’ McCoy and Scott Waugh. A title card appears early explaining that the film is “based on real acts of valor,” which is a nice way of saying none of this is true, but it probably happened at some point in spirit, because you can’t snuff the spirit of heroism. Which is why “Act Of Valor” tries to trump all modern action pictures by claiming to be the real deal, down to the marketing-ready gimmick of casting actual Navy SEALs. Feeling inadequate yet?
The story of “Act Of Valor” is strictly streamlined b-movie territory. There’s a rogue terrorist, with ties to the Russian mafia, the Taliban and Mexican drug cartels. Somehow, they could not cram the Yakuza into this thing. He’s planning the sort of massive terrorist attack that only a Hollywood screenwriter (like, say, Kurt Johnstad of “300”) could plan, involving suicide bombers escaping over the border with ceramic necklaces undetectable by common metal detectors, but containing enough firepower for one terrorist to favorably compare the plan’s possible impact to that of 9/11. No, he doesn’t say it would be “9/11 times one hundred,” but he comes close.
Our unbilled heroes, played by actual Navy SEALs, are a demographically-friendly group of grunts who deploy and become killing machines, never missing their targets. They’re brave, heroic, and tough enough to take a rocket launcher to the chest and live (not a typo). We don’t spend much time with them outside of combat — one has a family and kids, and we see him wishing a teary-eyed goodbye to his real life wife, who has to re-enact the sick possibility that she may be pregnant with a kid as her actual husband is making possibly fatal heroic decisions in another country. These are not actors, so it seems particularly sadistic to this woman, who never gets anything substantial to say or do because the women at home don’t commit Real Acts Of Valor.
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It’s not clear exactly what we’re fighting for, either. Again, it’s the Drug Movie Conundrum, where you justify the ugliness but never the recovery. “Act Of Valor” wants to toss the bullets around and blow up the bad guys. But does it want to protect America? If so, why? One soldier carries an actual American flag in his pocket, given to him by his father. But what is he preserving at home? What was his bloodline like? The movie lacks the human element to make us root for its heroes; instead the film drowns in gunfire, and mantras take the place of dialogue. We can’t even cheer on our lead characters, none of whom are given any personality beyond the film’s initial exposition. It’s a nihilist’s approach to filmmaking, common to modern American cinema in that it wants shit to blow up good, but doesn’t care about why, or what, the repercussions might be.
So we’re left with two blond, corn-fed slabs of meat as our leads. Together with some faceless token minorities and a couple more white dudes, they take the battle to land, sea and air. The first mission is the most conventionally entertaining, with the soldiers tasked with extracting a CIA operative who is objectified in two ways, being played by midriff-baring actress Roselyn Sanchez, and then being tortured and beaten until she’s turned into hamburger. She survives her beatings without giving up intel, so maybe that counts as a Real Act Of Valor.
A siege at sea follows, with the film’s second extended skydiving sequence (if you’ve got it, flaunt it) leading to the SEALs intercepting a yacht housing a terrorist operative who surrounds himself with bikini-clad supermodels. When the bullets go flying, the girls literally disappear and are never heard from again. You’d think they’d be hard to miss. The third and fourth assaults occur on land in Mexico, but by that point, you could put any of the gun battles in a random order and achieve the same storytelling results.
You can’t accurately ‘review’ “Act Of Valor” since it’s not a work of art. It’s not attempting to challenge any notions or ideas about your regular life: It’s propaganda. Of course every piece of intel is accurate. Of course our heroes are fairly flawless — they use foul language once, to lightly mock each other. And of course the captain is going to threaten a terrorist with a detention center by pausing mid-taunt to say he would be treated “fairly and humanely.” The point of propaganda is that it aims to eliminate the need for actual human drama and the possibility that extremely difficult choices may change our characters. It’s also not much fun to watch.
The novelty of casting actual SEALs is also a false concession to ‘realism.’ Action pictures used to pride themselves on creating imaginary worlds for larger-than-life heroes to march through, because that required a bit of creativity and ingenuity, and some jerk in the audience wouldn’t complain about it not being similar to the YouTube video he saw where a soldier fires a few rounds with actual weapons. Now it’s all about verisimilitude — the modern action director lacks the creativity to generate his own fictional world, so he/she tries to ape ours.
Of course, this is not new, and neither is the approach by directors McCoy and Waugh, who switch between videogame visual vocabulary like shooter POV and over-the-shoulder shakycam. By flattering the ego of the viewer under the guise of “you-are-there” realism, you dehumanize the already one-dimensional characters. In the battlefield, it makes sense that these soldiers would become unquestioning automatons. In a movie, it’s a bit more queasy when they shoot up, and basically destroy, a small Mexican pueblo housing terrorist weapons. These are real SEALs and, according to the press notes, real artillery was used, so obviously all those local Mexican villagers were in on this terrorist scheme, right?
“Act Of Valor” will stand out due to its unconventional casting, but that’s the sort of detail that doesn’t matter in today’s filmmaking world. We have enough CGI and special effects, some more subtle than others, that for years now movies have been turning people like Tobey Maguire into ‘badasses’, neglecting any need for either a make-believe beefhead like Sylvester Stallone or, in this case, the real thing. These soldiers in “Act Of Valor” serve our country, they put their life on the line to provide a service to our land of which most of us could not dream. McCoy and Waugh, and every other misguided producer on this cynical exercise in graphic violence, repay this dedication by turning them into just more standard issue action movie drones, cannon fodder for the popcorn-devouring masses. [F]