Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Act of Valor: A Review


The acts of the Navy SEALs (SEa, Air, and Land) are without question worthy of honor, respect, admiration, and eternal gratitude. Act of Valor features actual Navy SEALs in leading roles, using real SEAL techniques used in the field.  All well and good.  If one looks at Act of Valor as a celebration of their courage, then it is a good film.  If one looks at Act of Valor as an actual film, it has a lot to answer for. 

This story is told in flashback, as the narrator talks to an unborn or recently-born child about the risks the boy's father faced.  The main plot of Act of Valor involves Agent Morales (Rosalyn Sanchez), a CIA agent investigating the possible connection between drug lord Christo (Alex Veadov) and Islamic terrorist Shabal (Jason Cottle).  Morales is captured and tortured, and the SEALs come to the rescue.

The SEALs unearth an even more insidious plot of which Morales barely scratched the surface.  Shabal now is plotting a massive series of terrorist attacks by using suicide bombers smuggled across the Mexican border.  This leads to two missions: one in international waters and one in Mexico, which causes those to make the ultimate sacrifice.

I know that the big selling point in Act of Valor is the fact that the film has actual Navy SEALs on-screen.  That however might be one of the film's biggest problems.  Whenever they are required to do the action scenes, we see the SEALs in their element.  It's whenever we are asked to get a glimmer of their private lives that the film falls flat.

Curiously, I remembered when I was in high school.  For Health class, Coach showed us a film called Navy SEALs starring Charlie Sheen in his pre-insanity days.   What this had to do with good sexual decisions I never did learn, but I thought it was entertaining.  One should remember I WAS in high school when I saw it.  The fact that these were actors playing Navy SEALs didn't bother me in the slightest.  I didn't give it a second thought.

Act of Valor forces me to give it a second thought.  It's clear these guys are not actors.  They are pretty lousy at it, and it begs the question of whether Act of Valor would have been a better film IF they had opted for actual actors rather than trusting that the SEALs would be able to play themselves.

When we are given little bits of their private lives (as if the cliche-ridden story wasn't already wasn't bad enough: the 'pregnant wife' subplot), the SEALs were stiff and even uninteresting.  I remember a scene when two SEALs are told about their colleague who was injured in Morales' rescue.  They were told that this SEAL was going to lose his eye.  I wrote that the guys weren't exactly broken up about Mickey's fate.  They seemed to be almost uninterested in the fact that their friend was going to lose his eye.  I think it's because they knew it was all fake, but while actors (and any other script) would have given some emotion, Act of Valor can't be bothered with such things. 

Here is where we have perhaps the biggest problem Act of Valor: the film runs the risk of making it all look like a video game.  This comes across often in Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh's film: often the camera shots (especially whenever we get a SEAL POV), it looks like we're watching people playing Gears of War or Call of Duty than a feature film.  It seems so obvious that I suspect this style of video game-like imagery was deliberate.

Here, we run a dangerous risk that Act of Valor is making the real acts of war appear like fiction, like a game, rather than a very serious matter where life and death can come at a moment's notice with no rhyme or reason as to why some men live and others die. 

One can congratulate Kurt Johnstad's screenplay in allowing for the SEALs to sound authentic when they speak.  It is natural to have people in a particular profession speak their own sub-language, company-speak so to speak (no pun intended).  However, sometimes we civilians become lost as to what exactly is being said.  Near the end when one of the SEALs asks, "What the hell are you talking about?", that pretty much summed up my reaction to some of the dialogue.

The overall plot of Act of Valor is rather grand to where it plays almost as farce.  The best example I can give is when Christo is captured on the high seas.  The efforts in the dialogue at humor are so forced and unnatural that it becomes embarrasing to watch.  The people on screen (even the actual professionals) are fake and it's all so over-the-top that I just marvelled at how inept it all was.

Still, if one forgets that we won't watch any actual acting in Act of Valor and that the story sometimes veers into unintended humor (why did I keep thinking the smuggling of these Phillipine jihadists via Mexico looked like something out of a right-wing fantasia), the actual action scenes were well-made and brought that intensity and realism which makes Act of Valor worth watching. 

I think that having real Navy SEALs in Act of Valor does lend the film a realism that might have been lost with real actors playing the SEALs.  I also think having real Navy SEALs in Act of Valor gives the film a video game/recruitment video feel lost without real actors NOT playing the SEALs.

The best thing about Act of Valor (apart from the action sequences) is the closing poem spoken in voice-over which was written by the great American Indian leader Tecumseh.  It is a moving statement in a film that sadly doesn't have moving performances.  So impressed was I with the "Act of Valor" poem that I've included it in its entirety:

“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.

Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none.

When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself.

Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools
and robs the spirit of its vision.

When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”                 

Wise words from a wise leader. 

When it comes to killing the enemy, leave that to the professionals (Navy SEALs). 
When it comes to giving a good performance, leave that to the professionals (actual actors). 


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