Act of ValorReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/23/12 21:55:05
"Act of Valor" is a film that plays like the Bizzaro World version of the hit comedy "Tropic Thunder." In that movie, you will recall, a group of spoiled movie stars get stranded in the jungle under the impression that they are shooting a war film guerrilla-style and inadvertently stumble into a real-life combat situation against a brutal drug lord in which the bullets and bombs are 100% real. "Act of Valor," on the other hand, offers up the sight of a group of real-life Navy SEALS inserted into a film in which they pursue a drug lord, not to mention terrorists, smugglers and the like, into combat situations that are based on real-life military tactics and, according to the advanced publicity, and featuring firefights stage with live ammunition to heighten the realism even further. Between the presence of the SEAL team, the deployment of the latest advances in weaponry and the cooperation of the Navy in its production, "Act of Valor" is essentially the most blatant armed forces recruiting tool to hit the big screen since "Top Gun," or at least that thing featuring the music of Kid Rock that used to play before every single film imaginable a few years ago. In other words, the film is, at its core, nothing but 90-odd minutes of flat-out propaganda. As an admitted liberal pinko commie type, some might assume that I would object wholeheartedly to the entire thing simply on a political level but that is not the case. My objection is not that it is propaganda but that it is badly-done propaganda that is so flat-footed and tone-deaf from a cinematic standpoint that it takes its central point of interest--the real-life military status of its key players and such--and mishandles it so completely that it is rendered moot and the film as a whole comes across as barely more convincing than the Charlie Sheen classic "Navy Seals."The film starts off with a bang, to say the least, with the bombing of the International School in Jakarta via a booby-trapped ice-cream truck--a move that has little to do with the rest of the film but which handily introduces its chief villains, Islam-convert terrorist Abul Shabal (Jason Cottle) and blows up enough little kids to ensure that everyone in the audience will be clamoring for the sight of red meat, preferably his. Meanwhile, down in Costa Rica, a comely undercover CIA operative (Roselyn Sanchez) is kidnapped by an evil arms dealer (Alex Valenov) and tortured for information. Soon afterwards, a recently deployed SEAL team consisting of family man Chief Dave, father-to-be Roarke and several other barely-established colleagues are commanded by their superior officer, whose resemblance to Steve Zissou is weirdly disconcerting, to drop into the area, rescue the damsel in distress and get her to the extraction point so that she can be rescued.
This goes off reasonably well--one of our guys loses an eye but the baddies are pretty much all slaughtered--but what once appeared to a simple rescue mission becomes more complicated when it is discovered that the arms dealer and the Shabal are old childhood pals and the former has just supplied the latter with the latest vogue in suicide bomber wear--vests filled with ceramic ball bearings stuffed with explosive gel that cannot be detected by metal detectors. As a result, the team pursues Shabal and his followers in a desperate bid to stop them before they can cross the Mexican border into America and wreak the kind of havoc that, according to one person, would make 9/11 seem "like a walk in the park. . .Central Park."
The idea behind "Act of Valor" sounds potentially intriguing in theory but considering the fact that the front-line activity of our recent military adventures have been so heavily documented through documentaries, news reports and unfortunate videos leaked to YouTube, it needs an extra burst of something to make it more distinctive and memorable. Alas, that would require a genuine sense of inspiration and that was clearly not in abundance between screenwriter Kirk Johnstad (whose previous credit was the slightly-more-subtle military epic "300") or debuting co-directors Mike "Mouse" McCoy & Scott Waugh so they have instead decided to take their authentic military personnel and equipment and deploy them in the service of a plot that would hardly pass muster for a bottom-of-the-barrel direct-to-video release and the result is a misfire on any number of levels. For example, the notion of employing real-life SEAL team members instead of mere actors was presumably hit upon in the hopes that their experience would lend an additional level of verisimilitude to the proceedings--something along the line of what Steven Soderbergh was going for recently when he cast mixed-martial-arts fighter Gina Carano in his action epic "Haywire."
In that film, the ploy worked because Carano miraculously proved to be as convincing in the dialogue scenes as in the ass-kicking ones and managed to hold her own dramatically against the likes of Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Michael Fassbender. In "Act of Valor," on the other hand, our heroes are certainly convincing when it comes to loading their ordinance and getting into position but when it comes to simply delivering dialogue, it quickly becomes apparent why past war films have chosen to employ actors instead of soldiers. Every moment that our heroes open their mouths to speak, they deliver Johnstad's stew of manly aphorisms, references to Tecumseh and gobs of raw exposition in a sort of abashed monotone that makes them sound like members of a high school football team who have been roped against their will into appearing in the class play. It appears that the filmmakers recognized the dramatic limitations of the soldiers early on because much of what they say is either done in straight voiceover or in scenes shot in enough darkness so as to make the potential overdubbing less obvious. In the end, their characters are so thinly conceived and dully executed that when one of them winds up giving their life in the act of valor that gives the film its name, it took several minutes before I could figure out who it was.
That said, the stilted performances might have been forgiven or at least overlooked if the surrounding action had been even remotely as realistic as the hype would lead you to believe but it turns out to be even more unconvincing. If you are going to try to make something like this seem real by putting some unknowns into the cast, you have to fill all the roles with unknowns or the "reality" will be shattered every time a familiar face like Roselyn Sanchez comes into the frame. If you are going to try to create something that stresses the interplay between team members and how they come together to pull off their missions according to their precisely executed plans, you have to figure out a way of shooting the material in a way that conveys that approach rather than offering up the standard action set-piece scrambles in which it is often impossible to determine who is doing what and how at any given time. If you want to tell a story that conveys the day-to-day reality of combat, you should not instead offer up a narrative that feels more like a feature-length video game than anything else, right down to the first-person-shooter visuals and the series of increasingly difficult missions that eventually lead to a climactic showdown against the boss character.
Finally, if you want viewers to be fully convinced of the authenticity of what they are seeing, don't provide them with moments that are too silly to be believed for a second. There are too many of them on display to fully go into here but my favorites are probably the ones supplied by the team's commander, the aforementioned Steve Zissou lookalike and, as it turns out, a budding cineaste to boot. At one point, while explaining orders to his men, he first states that if the bad guys escape, "This could be big trouble in little china," follows that up with stating that the fleeing arms dealer has "pulled a Roman Polanski" and when he finally interrogates the dealer (and somehow managing to extract all the necessary information without any enhanced techniques), he cannot believe that the guy has never seen "Star Trek." Look, for all I know, perhaps military officers do drop in Tarantinoesque references as a way of conveying information but it just plays very strangely here and inspires the kind of laughs that I don't think the filmmakers really wanted at that particular point.
"Act of Valor" is a terrible movie but it is terrible not just because of its own artistic shortcomings, which are legion, but because of the way that it squanders such a potentially interesting premise in such a lackluster fashion. In the right hands, it might have been the equivalent of the low-budget version of "Apocalypse Now" that John Milius (a guy who knows how to make propaganda that is actually entertaining regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum) and George Lucas supposedly contemplated doing in the late 1960's by shooting it in 16mm with unknowns in Vietnam with the war raging around them. Here, by comparison, there is only one scene that is particularly exciting--the raid on the compound to free the CIA prisoner--and that is only because it is frankly going for the kind of overtly cinematic set-piece that wouldn't have seemed out of place in a "Rambo" movie. Beyond that, this is a load of nonsense that imparts all of the authenticity of an extended P.R. advertisement, which is essentially what it is, and utterly fails to capture what the reality of life in the military is like in the way that an excellent, non-partisan documentary like "Restrepo" did so brilliantly.Oh yeah . . about that claim of shooting the film using live artillery during the action scenes? I haven't really commented on that up to now, largely because it sounds like a stretching of the truth at best and flat-out hogwash at work. However, if this is indeed the truth--and I am not saying that it isn't, just that I have some doubts as to its veracity--then I can only hope that when the film hits Blu-ray, the bonus features will include a film clip showing Roselyn Sanchez being informed for the first time that the set of her new movie is going to have bullets flying everywhere. That is the kind of extra that could provide more legitimate entertainment that the feature it is meant to support.
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