Act of Valor feels like it was intentionally designed to discourage film critics. The action movie, available now on Blu-ray, casts real active-duty Navy SEALs as fictional active-duty Navy SEALs fighting to stop a terrorist plot against the United States. So issues like whether they’re actually good actors seem, on the surface, like kind of a moot point. Who am I to judge these real American heroes, re-enacting their daily lives for our entertainment and patriotic nourishment? That’s a fair question. Here’s another one: why would you cast active-duty Navy SEALs in the first place?
Because there are really only three possibilities. First, that Act of Valor is nothing more than a propaganda video designed to indoctrinate the easily addled masses into the notion that joining the military is really, really cool. The film’s wickedly orchestrated action sequences and odd 2nd-Person voice-over, talking about how “your” father was a Navy SEAL and how “you” are probably going to follow in his footsteps, support that hypothesis. But let’s assume that there’s something less Machiavellian going on. Let’s assume that it’s all just a callous marketing stunt, like putting Mariah Carey in Glitter or Michael Jordan in Space Jam, because the third option, that they all turned out to be great actors, has no basis in reality.
Act of Valor would be nothing worth writing about, or even making, without the novelty of seeing some of America’s greatest heroes in action. And the action is great. The Blu-ray release in particular sells every pop of the gunshots, and the “you are here” style in which each explosive raid is filmed briefly enraptures you into the moment of battle. But without real characters, interpersonal conflict or at least a bit of personality thrown in, the effect is like watching someone else play Call of Duty. Worse yet, they’re playing one of the Treyarch installments.
The dialogue in Act of Valor plays out in soft monotone inflections that have the distinct effect of making me sleepy-eyed, with only the explosive punctuations of actual explosions to wake me back up again. It doesn’t help that they’re rarely saying anything of interest. The film opens with introductions to the entire team, going over vital stats and personality characteristics, but all but three of the Navy SEALs disappear in the cornucopia of the firefights, and two of the ones we have left have nothing to talk about besides one them getting home to their pregnant wife. He might as well have two days left to retirement, because it’s the only way they could foreshadow his inevitable death more vividly.
The third guy is a sigh of relief, earning himself a memorable interrogation sequence that, mercifully, doesn’t belong in the Jack Bauer torture mold no matter how much time is of the essence. It also helps that he’s joined in that scene by an actual professional actor, who knows how to inhabit a role and make it feel alive. He’s not helped by the primitive screenplay, which intersperses personality-free exposition with awkward sentiment, and treats every single foreigner as a guilty by association with their criminal underworlds. At one point, two Navy SEALs on a reconnaissance mission in Africa note that their targets are Pilipino Muslim jihadists in league with the Russians and Mexicans. Why stop there? In Act of Valor’s effort to avoid demonizing the Middle East they forgot to accuse Canada, Norway and Vatican City, but that’s about all.
Act of Valor has its fans. I assume they’re action junkies, stalwart patriots who appreciate the sentiment beyond the film’s flaws and folks with plain old-fashioned low standards. They’ll appreciate the impressive treatment Act of Valor has been given on Blu-ray, which includes behind the scenes featurettes, deleted scenes and a commentary track with the directors. I’m just bored by it. I’d rather see a documentary about these guys, where they wouldn’t forced to regurgitate lines that barely qualify as dialogue and in which the villains are actually criminals acting against our best interests as a country, rather than a strange hodgepodge of xenophobic ciphers with a plan that would make a boring episode of “24.” Heroes? Sure, I’ll buy that. Actors? Clearly not. And that’s okay. If the cast of this movie thrust me into a combat situation and told me I sucked at it, I’d take the experts at their word.