In a weird way, it’s very appropriate to be reviewing Act Of Valor for a video game publication. I find it impossible to believe that this movie would have been made without the mind-boggling global success of the Call Of Duty franchise.
The film is a fairly dry depiction of a group of Navy SEALs on mission that doesn’t bother itself much with backstory or motivation. Nope, this is just a bunch of guys on a mission and feels like a recruitment film. However, that’s true of the Modern Warfare games as well, which always felt like a perverse piece of propaganda when you got past all of the online gay-bashing. I’m sure the only reason this dry and boring exercise in professional macho posing and patriotism got a wide release is because the producers were hoping to bring in those Call Of Duty gamers. Hell, they even filled the movie with machine gun point of view shots. However, if you are part of the COD cult, don’t be fooled. A few impressive action scenes aside, this movie is a waste of time. You’re better off staying at home and shooting third graders in the face online.
The movie opens with the directors talking about how important their movie is and telling the audience that no one they are about to watch shoot bad guys is an actor. Nope, they are all actual Navy SEALs. I guess that’s a good way of warning the audience that they are about to watch some pretty terrible acting, but it also kicks off the movie with an uncomfortable level of pretension. We’re told we’re supposed to take this movie very seriously, yet little happens onscreen to demand that reverence. It’s all pretty standard men-on-a-mission stuff. There’s a suicide bombing in Jakarta that announces the presence of a new international terrorist organization. Suddenly Dave, Rorke, and their indistinguishable Navy buddies are sent off to various exotic locations like The Sudan, Costa Rica, and Mexico to blow stuff up real good and bring the terrorists to justice. Weirdly, we never get much a sense of who any of the protagonists are other than the fact that they are family men and really, really good guys. However, the terrorists like Abul Shabal are given back stories and characterizations, making them far more compelling characters even though we’re supposed to be rooting for them to die. The Navy guys on the other hand are limited to spitting out idiotic catch phrases about freedom and honor that that belong on army recruitment pamphlets and not in screenplays.
More than anything else, Act Of Valor exists to show off the latest military and naval hardware and convince the audience that kicking ass like these guys would be like totally awesome. Honestly, the movie is so propagandistic that I’m surprised it doesn’t conclude with a phone number for the national recruiting office. How this got a wide release as a commercial movie is beyond me. This thing was clearly designed to be a DVD on constant repeat in recruiting offices showing impressionable young men how badass and honorable it is to be in the Navy SEALs. It’s not subtext, it’s text, and embarrassingly on the nose. Obviously, the men who risk their lives to protect their country are people who are worthy of reverence, but this film is a few steps beyond that appropriate level of respect. This isn’t Platoon or Full Metal Jacket, actual films with a point of view that just happen to be about war. No, it’s not entertainment, it’s an advertisement for military and that should have been made more clear in the marketing. I’m not sure how the filmmakers think that audiences won’t be able to see through that, but then I don’t understand what would make someone actually join the army, so perhaps there are very easily duped viewers out there.
Now, it should be said that co-directors (and former stunt men) Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh do know how to stage an impressive physical action scene. While the real Navy SEALs may struggle when they’re asked to emote or deliver a line, they sure as hell know how to wield guns n’ ammo and deliver the goods once the bullets start flying. The shoot outs and chases are quite tense even if the overuse of first person shooter shots gets irritating almost immediately. If you were to cut together a promo reel of the action scenes from Act Of Valor (say for an actual army commercial perhaps?) you’d get an impressive 20 minutes of adrenaline pumping mayhem. Unfortunately, there’s all that plot and propaganda in between that drags the movie down and makes it instantly forgettable. If you’re in the army/navy, thinking about joining the army/navy, or spend 12-18 hours a day playing Modern Warfare then by all means run to the theater to catch Act Of Valor on opening weekend with a change of pants in case you have an accident. However, if you’re a normal person who just likes war movies and can see through propaganda, then don’t even consider it. The actions scenes aren’t worth all the self-satisfied attempts at wooing the audience to sign up. You’re better off staying at home and watching Stripes instead. At least that movie tells the audience how awesome the army is with plenty of wit, sarcasm, and other Bill Murray qualities.