As a no-holds-barred recruiting video, Act of Valor kicks all sorts of ass. As an actual movie, however, it barely coheres. Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh’s film about a crack team of Navy SEALs uncovering and undoing an international drug-and-terror network before an attack on U.S. soil offers us a compelling first: It stars real-life Navy SEALs, often using live ammunition. These soldiers are so real, we’ve been told, that the film can’t even list them in the credits. (Instead, the end credits features a roll call of SEALs who’ve been killed in the line of duty, with a somewhat unintentionally ominous shout-out to all those who will.)
So, what does a movie starring real-life Navy SEALs doing (sort of) real-life Navy SEAL things look like? Well, not that much different from some video games, it turns out, but there’s definitely a charge that comes from watching the real pros do their thing. They have a certain no-nonsense confidence that’s bracing to those of us so used to the pretend toughness of recognizable Hollywood faces. They’re assertive with their jargon, and the film is full of language it bravely refuses to define: I still have no idea what “sterile aircraft” or “containment element” means. The cleanly shot and edited battle scenes are impressively rousing, not the least because they tend to avoid movie-friendly acts of individual heroism and instead give us scenes of genuine teamwork. (In the movie’s best moment, an American sniper takes out a bad guy by a pier while a pair of hands reaches out of the water to grab the body so it doesn’t make a splash and alert the other baddies.)
At the same time, with all this potential for realism, it’s a shame that McCoy and Waugh have gone down such a jingoistic, black-and-white path. The narrative here is painfully broad strokes, and the villains — a Benetton ad of evil that includes disgruntled Chechens, jaded Russian Jews, scared-stiff Filipinas, anonymous African mercenaries, and Mexican drug runners — are a decidedly over-the-top bunch. The contrasts are hilariously stark — the evildoers hang out in pricey foreign lofts listening to Brahms and drinking wine, while our guys hang out at the beach and enjoy a few brewskis. They have yachts full of faceless babes in bikinis mixing cocktails, while we have pregnant wives at home waiting by the phone. It’s not that we need the villains to be nuanced or understood; it’s just that making them so cartoonish cheapens the real-life heroism the film is trying to celebrate.
To be fair, though, it’s not like our heroes get much shading either. Any non-combat moments the soldiers in Act of Valor share when they settle down, such as some moments at home with the families, are thoroughly generic and stiff, not unlike those staged “narrative” scenes in educational IMAX movies (or, if you’re in a less generous mood, porn). They take us out of the film and have the ironic effect of dehumanizing the characters. One wonders how the movie might have played as pure, unceasing battle scenes, allowing the combat to define the characters; with real soldiers doing the onscreen fighting, something special may well have emerged.