Act Of Valor seems like one of those films where the story behind it is destined to be far more interesting than the story it tells. It began as nothing more than a Navy (or, more specifically, for Naval Special Warfare Command) recruitment video, directed by Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh. McCoy and Waugh felt like they were on to something greater, and petitioned the NAVY to allow them to use real Navy SEALs for a full-length feature film. What came out of that is something wholly unique — a work of fiction (based on actual SEAL missions) that doesn’t just feature, but stars actual SEALs. There are actors playing the antagonists and supporting cast, but the main players are the real deal, so much so that due to military confidentiality, their names aren’t even featured in the credits.
That makes for fascinating background story, but it doesn’t necessary mean a good movie. Taking a group of real-life badasses and expecting them to act, via a couple of film makers with almost no major motion picture directing experience, and you’ve got a hell of a gamble. The only one with any real experience with film was their writer, Kurt Johnstead, who had previously co-written Zack Snyder’s 300, a film that was handsomely shot, but not what I’d call good. Needless to say, I walked into Act Of Valor with some trepidation.
Remarkably, I walked out pleasantly surprised. The film is, in good ways, much more and much less than I expected it to be. The story is intense and complex, a convoluted plot involving tracking Jihadist terrorists intent on smuggling suicide bombers on U.S. soil. It takes the intrepid SEAL team on a harrowing journey through the Philippines, Mexico, the Middle East, Russia and elsewere. Each setting, whether on location or using sets in San Diego, Puerto Rico, the Ukraine, Cambodia, or the John Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, is gorgeously shot and meticulously designed. It all starts with a suicide bombing in the Phillippines, then goes on to involve their recovery of a captured CIA agent. and is breathlessly intense from the get-go. In many ways it’s far more tautly affecting than regular Hollywood action, because it eschews all of the bombastic effects wisecracking silliness of the conventional war movie. All of the tactics, weapons, and technology are drawn from actual SEAL combat situations, and with a breathtaking attention to detail it gives a riveting insight into just what their lives are like in the field.
What makes the combat scenes so extraordinary isn’t just the furious intensity of the firefights, but the quiet moments that lead up to it. They are men who have what novelist and film critic Stephen Hunter called “the gift of stillness,” the ability to move quietly and with nerve-wracking slowness as they creep towards their targets. It’s this ungodly patience and silence that makes the sudden explosiveness so compelling, realizing that they can simply flip the switch. No matter how much supposed “training” a Hollywood actor may receive, it never feels even remotely close to the same thing, and watching the real deal on the big screen is brutally compelling. The film pulls no punches with its violence, and never glamorizes the action on screen. In fact, it’s actually quite uncomfortable in parts, particularly a rather grotesque torture scene and some terrifying close-quarter combat scenes. The combat is both vicious and precise, with (mercifully) little slow-motion or other gimmicky effects.
Interestingly, the characters that are played by the SEALs are pretty decent. Yes, their acting when they’re off-duty and spending time with their families and friends is wooden and stilted, but strangely forgivable. In many ways, that’s because the dialogue is quite realistic, never reducing itself to overly dramatic speeches and proclamations, but rather sticking to quiet introspection and somberness. Similarly, what humor there is in the film feels genuine and unscripted, more like brotherly camaraderie than forced one-liners. Some may not be able to get past a feeling of amateurishness by the SEALs (in acting terms), and it does feel a little like they’re acting out a high school play at times. But that’s frequently assuaged by avoiding too much emotional manipulation, and instead creating honest moments of tension, terror, and sadness.
The film has some weaker parts, to be certain. The acting, as mentioned earlier, is pretty rough in parts. The villains feel rather stock, and even though their motivations may be believable, theirs is the dialogue that ultimately was the flimsiest (ironic, given that the villains are the real actors). Similarly, some of the tropes are a little bit much — the soldier with a baby on the way, the family man, etc. It felt a bit too much like Hollywood insta-plot, which was frustrating since so much of the rest of the film is built on realism. These are the inevitable consequences of a film that evolves in such an unusual manner — the meat of the film is substantial, but the spaces in between feel like just so much filler. It’s in these parts that screenwriter Johnstead failed, being unable to reconcile the gripping realism with the fictional world he placed the story into.
What surprised me most was that Act Of Valor rarely feels overwrought or jingoistic. Despite its origins, it’s not filled with patriotic silliness like the military ads you see on TV. It’s not about securing America’s future or saving the world, it’s not America rah-rah-rah, but instead about the men on the ground and the work that they do, both at home and abroad. Act Of Valor isn’t an action movie in the conventional sense — for much of it, it almost feels like a documentary. It’s visceral, scary stuff througout, harsh and unflinching and believe me, it does not make you want to be a Navy SEAL. But it does make you respect the hell out of them, and when they go down, you mourn with them as well.