I first caught wind of Act of Valor because of its first trailer, which played before The Sitter. I thought to myself, “Wow, a film that uses real Navy SEALs? This could be good.” I was floored at the film’s potential realism, especially when compared to all the other war and war-inspired films. That says a lot, given the fact that I tend to have little to no interest in anything military related.
But while watching Act of Valor, I realized the inherent problem with that decision.
Act of Valor
Directors: Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh
Release Date: February 24, 2012
Act of Valor is about a squadron of Navy SEALs sent on a covert mission to rescue a kidnapped CIA agent. After the successful mission, they realize that her mission runs a lot deeper than anybody initially thought. Soon, the film escalates to a high level as the Navy SEALs must prevent a large-scale tragedy that could cripple the United States.
If that summary of the plot feels a bit short, it’s because of how weak the story is. To break the plot down in the simplest of terms, the film plays out much like any recent first-person shooter game, with the focus being on us (Navy SEALs/Counter-Terrorists) vs. them (Terrorists/Guerrillas). While the main conflict of the film is pretty interesting, it serves as nothing more than a reason for the SEALs to shoot at people. There are desperate attempts at establishing some sort of emotional connection between the audience and some of the SEALs, but they all just blend into the same person, really.
It’s this emotional disconnect in the film that resulted in the epiphany I alluded to in the introduction: these guys are NOT actors. The film’s largest gimmick is the fact that the characters are played by real, active duty Navy SEALs, which results in very realistic terminology and action scenarios. But outside of scenes where they’re killing people, the acting is outright horrendous. The acting is excruciatingly stiff, like the kind you’d see in low-budget PSAs.
It’s a shame, too, because the action scenes are, at their best, some of the most amazing gunfights I’ve seen in recent times and, at their worst, ridiculously fake and full of propaganda. For the most part, the SEALs are like Super Americans, able to kill everybody in their path with headshots while taking little to no damage. The filmmakers build the SEALs up to be indestructible. But by doing this, they bastardize the main ploy (the use of real SEALs and strategy) by mixing them into terribly unbelievable scenarios where SEALs are lucky enough to get hit by a direct rocket, only for it to be a dud and not explode. While the action scenes are entertaining, the majority of them end up in a dizzying array of gunfire and explosions where you can’t make heads or tails of what exactly is going on. The agenda is undeniably patriotic, painting the SEALs in the greatest of lights, with the titular scene/climax wholeheartedly characterizing this theme.
It’s as if Act of Valor is a live-action videogame propagating the strength and character of the Navy. The videogame element is outright exploited, with holographic HUDs used to introduce the characters and pinpointing/indicating whenever the location is changed. As if that and the notion of the “Super American” weren’t enough, the camera has a tendency to shift over to an FPS view, resulting in scenes not unlike those found in Call of Duty or Counter-Strike. I admit, it’s a creative angle that hasn’t been exploited too much in films, but it just muddies the film’s whole direction. Did they really want to make a realistic film, or just make an outlandishly-fake film with psuedo-realism?
Act of Valor gets points for attempting to be different. Honestly, it’s a breath of fresh air when compared to other war films, where no one person becomes the main character. However, without a clear focus, all that’s left is a shallow film made up of entertaining gunfights, an interesting look at realistic military strategy, and desperate attempts at building emotional connections with viewers.