Review: Act of Valor reduces SEALs to lifeless shoot-em-up

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Photo: IATM LLC

There’s something scarily jingoistic and reductive about the new action film Act of Valor. It is being marketed as “a motion picture starring active duty Navy SEALs,” which I suppose it is in a literal sense. However, this by-the-numbers ‘splosion-fest is more of an extended promo for military recruiting than a coherent film.

Directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh introduce their film in a short prologue to be attached to all prints nationwide by saying they had originally set out to make a film that really conveys what it’s like to be a SEAL, and figured they couldn’t get more realistic than by using real-life sailors. Well, they’re wrong. While the actor-SEALs clearly know how to employ the tactical lingo and combat maneuvers necessary for their job, the rest of their performances are contrived and wooden. No line of dialogue rings true, few interaction are believable. I appreciate when creative teams try to incorporate non-actors in their films in pursuit of realism; however, performances like the ones given by the SEALs make me yearn for professionals.

The story follows eight SEALs on a standard rescue mission in Africa (the scenery jumps around far too much for me to remember where in Africa) that, of course, reveals a conspiracy involving jihadists hell-bent on committing an act so heinous, “it will make 9/11 look like a walk in the park.” I’m serious, this is an actual line of dialogue. The master plot is preceded by a brief introduction to the characters—if they can be called that, since there is no characterization. Some have kids, some are from foreign countries, but these are incidental details. The military of Act of Valor seems to pride itself in making killing instruments, not emotionally well-rounded citizens proficient in expressing emotion.

The film succeeds when the SEALs are allowed to convey their proficiency in combat and forget the camera is there. When they are free to interact with one another in preparation of combat, or when the bullets are flying, things start to feel less contrived. The skills they show when silently flanking enemy combatants in the film’s first major action scene can’t be faked. But as soon as they’re expected to spit dialogue with the rest of the cast (an assortment of C- and D-list talent such as Gonzalo Menendez and Nestor Serrano) they wither. It’s like they were directed to pack as much “hoorah” as possible into every line in order to compensate for the script’s ineptitude.

It’s a shame that while some of the action—especially the first-person POV shots where the camera is mounted to the top of a rifle—thrills, most of it is incoherent and anonymous in design and execution. Cinematographer Shane Hurlbut (Emerson grad ‘86 and the butt of Christian Bale’s infamous on-set tirade during production of Terminator Salvation) probably thought there was merit to switching back and forth between Canon DSLRs and Arriflex film cameras, but it does nothing more than imbue the film with an inconsistent look and tone.

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I applaud the SEALs for taking time to try to convey what it’s like to live with their warrior’s mentality. I deplore the filmmakers for reducing their actions to such an anonymous and pedestrian shoot-em-up.