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Entries in Act of Valor [2012] (1)

Sunday
Feb262012

Act of Valor (2012)

SEAL Team Sux

I read somewhere that co-directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh decided to use real-life, active-duty Navy SEALs in their fictitious film, Act of Valor, because actors would be unable to endure/replicate the grueling realities of America's elite fighting force. That sounds great, until you consider that A) it's been done before, B) short of actually killing someone on camera, there's no experience that a highly-trained and gifted actor cannot endure/replicate, and C) such a stunt is the only thing keeping this by-the-numbers clunker from going straight to video.

I found Act of Valor to be an okay movie, and a chilling piece of propaganda. One listen to the frequent cheers of "Woo-hoo!" from the early-twenties men sitting behind me during scenes of faceless mercenaries being gunned down by massive, mounted guns was enough to convince me that the film got its point across. What began life as a Navy recruitment video took on a life of its own, and was released this weekend as a big-screen Navy recruitment video.

The film stars a group of guys who are all but indistinguishable from one another in terms of personality or physical appearance--save for skin color and the infrequent beard. I guess that's the point: once the camouflage is applied and the weapons strapped on, men cease to be men and become an arm. The lethal appendage's brain is often half a planet away, barking orders to retrieve "packages" discreetly, and using whatever means are necessary.

In this case, the package is a CIA operative named Morales (Rosalyn Sanchez), who is kidnapped and tortured by the very smuggling cartel she was sent undercover to investigate. The SEALs swoop in and rescue her, only to discover that Morales' target, a slimy operator named Christo (Alex Veadov), has set a plan in motion with a Ukrainian Muslim extremist named Abu Shabal (Jason Cottle) to smuggle Filipino suicide bombers into the United States.

Convoluted? You betcha! Surprisingly, though, Act of Valor isn't just reenactments of SEAL drills; it's a globe-trotting, multi-environment campaign that feels like a whole season of 24, delivered in a tidy chunk of first-person-shooter-generation fast food. Whenever the beer-commercial/porn acting of the SEAL team threatens to derail the whole production,* the story shifts to the characters who are played by career performers. It probably wasn't intentional, but I found myself more compelled by the terrorsts' arguments, if only because they didn't sound as though someone yelled "Action!" in the middle of their Remedial English tutoring lessons.

Actually, that's not the only reason. What I'm about to say may lose all of you, but I couldn't get it out of my head during the whole movie: Abu Shabal has a pretty compelling reason for wanting to attack America--at least, the reason he professes is sound. At about the mid-way point, we see a classic terrorist video in which a band of bearded men with machine guns rattles off their demands into a crappy camera; in this case, there's only one demand: the United States needs to get the hell out of Muslim countries.

The actions of the terrorists are despicable; Shabal's plot involves explosive vests packed with silicone balls and a volatile gel that, when activated, will decimate everything within a significant radius. But here's a great mental exercise for the salivating flag-waivers among you: given the opportunity and the technology, do you think the founding fathers would have used similar tactics to thwart British occupiers during the Revolutionary War? More to the point, would Tecumseh? The film's narrator mentions and quotes him numerous times, sans irony, and I practically gave myself a bald spot from all the head-scratching.

I know, I know. The Revolutionary War was different, and what the settlers did to the Indians was different. Thinking otherwise is so pre-9/11! We're in a global terror war now--except Act of Valor conveniently leaves out the largest battlefield in that war's Risk assessment: the Middle East. Sure, we get vague mentions of jihadists in Central Asia, but none of the villains in Act of Valor look like they hail from Iraq, Afghanistan, or Iran; they look like white, Russian rejects from xXx; many of their henchmen are Spanish. For as much as the movie wants to promote the fearlessness of its "heroes", the filmmakers seem awfully timid about depicting negative Middle Eastern stereotypes. Weird...

Let's take another sidebar and talk about the word "heroes". Were an alien from another planet to land on Earth and walk into Act of Valor (assuming they could understand the language by using an intergalactic translator or something), what would they make of Act of Valor's protagonists? They're definitely brave men, walking into firefights, jumping on grenades, and the like. But what about the families they leave behind? Can there be such a thing as selfish selflessness? We get a lot of macho talk about leaving the diaper-changing to the wives, and talk of passing on generations of warrior tradition to the men's ever-expanding families. But is that love or just genetic recruitment? Perhaps it's another unwanted side-effect of casting real SEALs, but compared to the enemy combatants, the Americans look and act like the latest models from Cyberdyne Systems.

Amidst the first-person-shooter shots of machine guns and knives sneaking through dangerous terrain, we get a lot of "duty" and "real man" talk--as if putting in over-time at a day job is somehow less heroic than killing random people without questioning management's motives.

Damn, this review has turned into a rant. That's okay. A major component of film criticism concerns the reaction of the critic to the material, and I found Act of Valor to be repulsive. It's competently put together and beautifully shot (particularly a scene in which cinematographer Shane Hurlbut shows us the effects of one of the dreaded exploding vests--and then one-ups himself by showing another vest setting off a third), but that's the whole point, isn't it? The only thing missing from Kurt Johnstad's screenplay--aside from characters with self-awareness in the grand scheme of things--is a phone number and Web address for prospective recruits to check out at the end of the movie.

I didn't care for Act of Valor, but it wasn't meant for me. It was aimed at the kids sitting behind me, cheering the awesome targeting systems, cool-as-hell aerial drones (coming soon to your neighborhood!), and, of course, the big-ass, bone-pulverizing firepower. The movie definitely got my blood pumping, but for all the wrong reasons.

Or maybe for the right ones.

*Roughly every two minutes of non fire-fight action.