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"Act of Valor" is a spectacular action epic that is built around a cast of people who could probably kill me. So… A+. See it twice.
Okay, I hope the real-life Navy SEALs who star in "Act Of Valor" just check that opening paragraph, because truth be told, I think "Act Of Valor" is the action movie equivalent of those Christian-market movies like "Fireproof" that come out, make a "surprising" amount of money, and then vanish again. Insufferably earnest, it is a stunt more than anything, one hell of a high-concept hook but not much of a movie.
If you're excited by the idea of watching active military personnel re-enact sweep and clear scenarios with live ammunition intercut with painfully stiff "character" sequences that are choked with stereotype, then this is the movie for you. It's pretty deadly, dramatically speaking. The two villains are like Bond villains someone recruited out of a Pinkberry in Sherman Oaks. They're pretty unconvincing, and their backstory of a shared childhood seems ridiculous considering one of them is like the Steve Jobs of suicide bombers and the other is a Central American big-deal drug smuggler who just wants to sail away on his big F. You-money yacht with his wife and kid.
By the time the film builds to a showdown in an illegal tunnel running from Mexicali to America, it is so preposterous that I was laughing. And you're really not supposed to be laughing. The action is staged with panache and a very specific sort of technical knowledge that means action beats don't really play out in a Hollywood way. There's an escape sequence that ends with gunfire from a boat that is like the Hand of God, and it's like a referee stepping in and calling the end of the game. It's almost preposterous as staged. That's what makes the movie so watchably bad. It is a weird film, start to finish, just in terms of storytelling. It leans on some really dull structural devices. The letter that one character is writing for the whole film, narrating the movie as he writes, is one long "I know where you're going with this" cliche, and it's tough going. These guys really aren't actors, and all the character work is awkward. Kurt Johnstad is one of the screenwriters of "300," but this doesn't work at all as a dramatic narrative.
The moments where the film comes to life are revealing and uncomfortable for me to watch because I'm not sure how I feel about sitting through a pageant about how we kill folks around the world, re-enacted by the folks who do the killing around the world. No disrespect to our troops, because I understand that they exist and there is a job they do and they are our people, out there in harm's way in many cases. But this is like that scene in "Gladiator" where they have the teams come out to re-enact one of their recent military victories. It feels inherently wrong to me to watch this recreation, and more-so because I don't buy the film's scenario at all. I don't believe anything about it. It's a Cannon movie from 1985, and not one of the good ones with Mickey Rourke or Charles Bronson but one of the supercrappy ones with Michael Dudikoff. Only you replace Dudikoff with a cast of people who, honestly, make Dudikoff look like the polished professional he is. That's "Act Of Valor."
I'm not even sure I think the movie has thought through its political message fully. It feels to me like Mike "Mouse" McCoy and Scott Waugh, the filmmakers, sort of half-cooked their idea and got it set up and started shooting and really didn't think through what they're even saying. The idea of mixing in these non-actors with actors like Roselyn Sanchez (who seems wildly underrated as a bigscreen presence) and a handful of other "that guys" means they aren't really selling it as a documentary, but they're still leaning on the idea of "real" as part of what you're paying to see.
Shane Hurlbut (the director of photography who was so famously screamed at by Christian Bale on those "Terminator: Salvation" tapes) shoots the action well, but there's a sort of TV movie vibe to it that comes from the sort of graceless overall storytelling that's going on. The score is a disaster of sorts, busy and insistent and constantly hard-selling what we're supposed to feel, even if the film never quite gets there on its own. The film doesn't give credits to the stars, so I'm not even sure what to call the characters, but that's all part of the notion that these guys are out there working, and giving out their names could be a security risk. Projecting their faces on 40 foot high screens all over the world isn't a problem, but putting them in the credits? Totally.
If you just want to look at this as a sort of catalog trip through the various methods we can use to (A) kill people around the world and (B) get around while doing so, then "Act Of Valor" is entertaining enough. I took a certain degree of virtual-reality pleasure from watching the way the platoon would attach each target. For kids who spend hours and hours and hours doing this stuff virtually in "Modern Warfare" and "Battlefield," I'm guessing this may strike a nerve. It might catch commercial fire, and I don't fault anyone who wants this experience. I'm just not sure I feel comfortable with it in the end. All kidding aside, when the end of the film arrives and they dedicate all of what we've seen to all of the SEALs who have died since 9/11, it felt to me like I had just seen "Hogan's Heroes: The Motion Picture," with a closing credits scroll of all the names that appeared on Schindler's real-life list. It's a jarring collision of ridiculous fiction and difficult reality, and it rubbed me wrong.
Your mileage may vary.
"Act Of Valor" opens in US theaters on Friday.