Just barely a movie, "Act of Valor" is more like a high-quality recruitment video with interstitial acting.
Sissy things like plot and character development aren't worthy of the mission. It's as though they've been chased out of the theater by a barking drill sergeant.
Instead of narrative and story, "Act of Valor" takes its propulsion from its verisimilitude. The film, directed by Mike "Mouse" McCoy and Scott Waugh, was made in collaboration with the Navy, and stars active duty SEALs in missions based on real ones.
McCoy and Waugh, both former stuntmen who have produced adrenaline-fueled sports documentaries like "Step into Liquid" and "Dust to Glory," put their cameras as close to the men as possible. The film opens awkwardly and somewhat absurdly with them explaining into the camera how they wanted to put the "audience in the boots" of the soldiers and why acting can't replicate what the SEALs do.
It's both a boast of the film's realism and an excuse for its dramatic deficiencies.
The action revolves around the abduction of a CIA agent (Roselyn Sanchez) in Costa Rica following a terrorist explosion at a school in Indonesia. The SEALs are dispatched to a rescue mission in Costa Rica, which unspools a global terrorist plot that stretches to Somalia, Mexico and — if they don't act fast — the United States.
The team is led by Lt. Cmdr. Rorke and Special Warfare Operator Chief Dave (they're referred to only by their first names), who, in between missions, banter about getting home and Rorke's soon-due child. But such conversations are a tiny, wooden part of "Act of Valor," just enough to suggest the basic emotions of fatherhood and the urge for home.
The main thrill of the film, which was written by Kurt Johnstad ("300"), is its action pieces — chiefly the storming of a jungle compound in Costa Rica and a raid of a tunnel system at the Mexico border. The former is a remarkable sequence that captures the extreme precision of an elaborate mission fusing parachuting, overhead drones, an amphibious approach, sniper shooting and a swift boat getaway.
The directors follow such scenes — shot with real ammunition — with worshipful awe and a reverence for their bravery. The SEALs, from whose point of view we often see as in a video game, have a preternatural calm in battle. Through the duration of the film, they won't make a single error. In baritone voices, they speak almost entirely in jargon.
But verisimilitude only goes so far. Any Homeric tones of warriors seeking home are shrugged off for lush, glamorizing battle sequences. Any possibility for change, self-discovery, emotion, doubt — all that stuff — is far outside the realm of "Act of Valor," a steely monument to military might.
In such a void, the bad guys — a weapons smuggler (Alex Veadov) and a Jihadist terrorist (Jason Cottle) — are its best source of liveliness, and a good argument for actual actors. In a film full of reminders of threats to American defense, the filmmakers not so gently suggest that evildoers are, just as the elite SEALs, growing more technologically advanced.
The sheer mastery of a skill, though, can make its own drama. The film depicts the SEALs' seriousness of purpose and deep pride in good work, and it's often impressive to behold their coordinated sweeps and feats of heroism.
Surely, after years of enduring Hollywood's fake representations (1990's "Navy SEALs" being one), the SEALs deserve the chance to show moviegoers what it's really like. Nobody wants to leave their image to Charlie Sheen, after all. And certainly, the movies haven't been extremely eager to tell stories of American soldiers in the wars of the last decade.
But "Act of Valor" is just as much a fiction as anything Hollywood can create. It's a flashy piece of patriotic propaganda that by exalting the SEALs as supermen, kills their humanity. The ugliness of war is wrapped in the brain dead cliches of action movies.
A curious public would be better off learning about the complexity of covert operations from reading about the Osama bin Laden raid (which surely inspired the highly-promoted release of "Act of Valor"), and witnessing the realities of war in a documentary like "Restrepo."
"Act of Valor," a Relativity Media release, is rated R for strong violence including some torture and for language. Running time: 101 minutes.