Friday, February 24, 2012

'Act of Valor' Movie Review

If you haven’t been keeping up here is the most important bit of background information you need to know about “Act of Valor”: the primary players in this new action film are active duty Navy SEALs. They’re the real deal, the real highly trained badasses, and this device is the primary element that sets “Act of Valor” apart from its action film brethren. Talking about “Act of Valor” is a tricky proposition. On one hand the film is intended as an authentic (at least somewhat) glimpse into the lives of the SEALs. On the other, it still has to function as movie. I know nothing about the day-to-day life of a Navy SEAL, so I can’t speak to the realism of it all, and will have to approach it as a movie, not an artifact.

I feel like I’ve been saying this a lot recently—in regards to films like “Haywire” and “Killer Elite”—but “Act of Valor” feels like a B-action flick you’d normally find in direct-to-video land. The presence of the SEALs is what sets the film apart, but also what limits it. In reality “Act of Valor” is exactly what it is, a mediocre low-budget action flick with a cool hook.

There are three main action pieces in “Act of Valor”, all of which are solid. The first, where the SEAL team has to rescue a kidnapped undercover agent from a jungle fortification, is especially strong. From the set up through the execution, directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh (the Bandito Brothers) create a tense incursion that balances the quiet anxiety of the approach with the chaotic mayhem of the raid. It’s a well-done sequence, and they pull off one of the better action moments you’ve seen so far this year.

Unfortunately the other action sequences don’t quite live up to the jungle raid. The biggest problem is that as the movie progresses the filmmakers rely too heavily on first-person shots, jumping randomly in and out of character points of view. These POV moves are not only jarring and distracting (it didn’t work in “Doom” either), but it feels like cheap gimmick. I understand that they’re trying to appeal to gamers in the crowd, but in this context it is an off-putting choice.

Having the SEALs gives an air of authenticity to the action, a realistic edge that a lot of the genre doesn’t have, and that is the true strength of “Act of Valor”. However the benefits don’t carry over to the rest of the movie. The SEALs may be a highly-skilled military force, they may be an elite fighting squad, and if I ever find myself kidnapped and tortured in a remote hideout somewhere, I hope they’re the ones who come get me. What the SEALs aren’t, however, are actors. They are very good at their jobs, but their jobs don’t usually involve reciting lines and manufacturing emotion on demand. Hell, I’d rather they spend their time on target practice and tactical drills anyway.

There is one SEAL, Senior, who, while he doesn’t give a great performance, is at least having a lot of fun. He’s a personable wise ass, though there’s a streak of utter seriousness and menace that undercuts every quip and joke as he interrogates an arms dealer. You can tell how much fun he’s having with this whole spectacle. I guess if my job were to drop everything and risk my life by diving headfirst into hazardous situations where everyone I meet wants to kill me, I would enjoy taking some time off to make a movie as well.

It doesn’t help matters much that the story is weak and not very well written, though it is way less of a military recruiting video that you might expect from the previews. There are terrorists, with little to no political agenda to speak of, and the SEALs have to stop them. There isn’t much more to “Act of Valor” than that. There are attempts to paint the SEALs as a tight-knit brotherhood, which I’m sure they are in reality, but these moments come across as heavy-handed and generic. The movie is a mishmash of war movie clichés—yes, they are clichés because they do happen in real life, like the “tearful goodbye” scene, but they don’t do anything to strengthen a movie, and at the end of the day, that’s what we’re talking about here. Then again, I doubt most people will watch “Act of Valor” expecting virtuoso performances and a gripping, genre-bending take on the action film.

“Act of Valor” goes to great pains not to offend anyone. The terrorists are like a grab bag of various groups that don’t like the US very much. There is a Muslim, a Chechnyan, a Russian, some from the Philippines, and crew of Central American drug runners who function, for all intents and purposes, as terrorists. You can almost see the writers trying to head off cries of racism and bias. However, in trying not to stereotype any one group, “Act of Valor” inadvertently steps right smack in the middle of a huge one. It isn’t obvious—a friend mentioned it to me afterwards—but it is definitely there when you think about it, and I’m curious if anyone else notices it.

I feel like if I stumbled across “Act of Valor” on cable some night I would watch it and be entertained in a reasonable fashion. But while there are some high points, there are some definite stumbles as well. It is a simple black and white, good versus evil story with questionable acting. Occasionally the action works, but then it falters, and I have a hard time saying that you absolutely need to see “Act of Valor” in the theater. If you’re intent on seeing it, but can be patient, I’d wait for the DVD or Blu-ray.

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