There’s been a movement in radio-friendly rock music in the last few years that has seen the genre move towards a watered-down metal format that thematically tends to be fixated on very vague male aggression. Always seemingly sung at some nebulous enemy, these songs trade on insecure masculinity and hazy hostility to fill out their jock-angst rock ballads. The songs tend to be briefly fashionable for action movie trailers, and usually sound as if they were engineered specifically to play out of a stereo sat on an open tailgate while a bunch of bros get juiced up before the high school football game.
Act Of Valor is every one of those songs morphed into a film.
It’s also a naked attempt to capitalize on pick-up truck patriotism and cheap sentiment to tell a paper-thin story built on the hot button fear-mongering that plagued this country for a decade following 9/11. Short of calling it outright propaganda, it’s safe to say Act Of Valor is selling a narrative that has no qualms about linking disparate political issues for a cheap scare. Seriously, Act Of Valor would really appreciate it if you guys would be as frightened again as you were the day after September 11th, if possible. The movie is a faded “Never Forget” bumper sticker brought to cinematic life, with about as much actual thought given to the issues on which it comments as you took to slap the sticker onto your bumper.
The story, in which a group of SEALS stumble upon a Muslim extremist’s plot to sneak some suicide bombers into America equipped with some particularly nasty gear, barely has the twists and turns to fill out an episode of 24, much less a feature film. It also employs some of the cheesiest villainy imaginable, including an over-the-top act of terrorism that sets up our bad guy all the way through his final plan that of course involves the Mexican/US border and illegal immigration.
As irritating as the circa 2002 fearsploitation is though, even more frustrating is that the entire concept on which the film is predicated quite simply doesn’t work. As every poster, trailer, and even a talking-head segment with the directors that plays beforehand will drill into you, this is a military action film that stars genuine active-duty Navy SEALS and their families, most of which was shot on Navy training facilities with full cooperation of the US Armed Forces. The problem comes with the fact that these SEALS and their families are being presented in the context of a traditional Hollywood narrative film. This means there is a cheesy action plot complete with cartoonish villains, giant leaps of logic in the plot, melodrama, and ticking clocks that are all trying to co-exist with real people faking real things on the screen.
This is not how movies work, and this may well make Act Of Valor the first reality-TV movie.
Cinema works because good movies create their own self contained universes wherein lies and artifice are used to immerse the audience and ultimately work through your brain to stab at the same neurons that create genuine empathy and emotion. Reality TV on the other hand, works on an entirely separate level where documentary techniques let real people doing fake things appear to be genuine. Reality TV is a more fleeting, junk food attempt to tell a documentary story, and there’s a reason the form has remained relegated to pandering, mainstream television. Attempting to merge that form with cinema creates a distorted, stakes-less story from which we’re supposed to be appreciating the reality of these guys doing what they actually do, meanwhile transparently fake things are happening around them. Planting lead right between the eyes of suspension of disbelief, this idea suggests we should get off on the reality of these operatives doing what they do in the way they actually do it, and then actually feel fear for these guys when somebody is shot or dives onto a grenade in slow-motino. On the other side of the coin, watching real families mime fake tragedy is — if not outright offensive — a bizarre situation that creates an inescapable cognitive dissonance.
Consider for a moment the still-forming genre of “found footage,” which has often been used as a technique to create the kind of immersing effervescence that Act Of Valor seems to be going for. The difference is that found footage movies tend to still use the traditional cinematic toolbox, with the claims of “this is real footage” used merely as framing for a straightforward movies with straightforward actors in them. For all its video game sensibilities and successful capturing of genuine bravado, Act Of Valor never comes half as close as any found footage movie to creating the sensation that you’re watching something real.
But beyond the flawed gimmick and beyond the DTV-tier screenplay played out by non-actors, the film is also robbed of any value because even its military fetishism and combat action are only ever decently shot at best. While the first sequence — in which the teams assaults a terrorist training base to recover a kidnapped CIA agent — is very effective and filled with equal parts quiet precision and exciting vehicular action, it’s all downhill from there. The action quickly becomes broken up by the stretches of Z-grade conspiracy plotting and the exceptionally lame attempts at character building. When the SEALs interact with each other there is a genuine matter-of-factness and stilted emotional candor that is a real thing between men in these situations, but these admirably rough moments are ruined when a real actor steps in and throws the scene off. The action is also interrupted as we start learning what our cartoon terrorist bad guy is up to, which involves explosive claymore-style suicide vests that can apparently pass through most security and kill lots and lots of people. Naturally, because it’s an action movie, the same SEAL team manages to unrealistically remain involved in this counter-terrorism plot all across the globe.
When the action does pick back up the quality drops steeply and we get a cheaper version of the same chaotic coverage and piecemeal editing of all the B-actioners we get each weekend. The filmmaking is not without its inventive tricks and clever shots, but rarely does an effective moment occur that is not quickly swallowed back up into the mess. Very few scenes in this film are lent any sort of extra credibility by the knowledge that these guys are actually trained to do these things, and again, the artifice of a rehearsed actor and careful filmmaking would likely have been as much or more able to put the audience in the SEALs shoes. Ultimately you have to tell some lies to get to the truth.
So while the hook of the film is that these are real military guys who know what the fuck they’re doing, most of the blocking and choreography is presented with as much sophistication as a multi-player match of Call Of Duty. Along with the occasional first-person-POV shots that litter the film, the influence of military video games is seen as every bad guy is invariably taken out with a headshot that creates the same blood burst and unrealistic SPLAT sound effect. Even beyond that laziness the sound design is inconsistent and often ineffective, so even something as badass as vehicle being ripped to shreds by .50 cal shells isn’t as spectacular as it should be.
Failing on virtually every level Act Of Valor relies on melodrama and shallow sentimentality to pay tribute to the efforts of our brave soldiers and operatives. It does so while ignoring the fact that it spends most of its running time turning military action into spectacle, and turning complex and dangerous international crisis into shitty thriller cliche. By slathering itself with a reverential tone for military bravery and with gestures like including the names of fallen SEALs in the credits, the film seeks to insulate itself from the questionable nature of what it’s doing. Let me assure you though, you can support the troops without supporting this pile of shit.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars