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Act of Valor / **½ (R)

Posted Saturday, February 25, 2012, at 5:34 PM

Active duty Navy SEALs star in the new action flick "Act of Valor".
Relativity Media presents a film directed by Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh. Written by Kurt Johnstad. Running time: 111 min. Rated R (for strong violence including some torture, and for language).

My father was a U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilot. He passed away last year after a brief battle with cancer that ravaged his body quickly. When he got sick, he kept a positive outlook. He never complained about what was happening to him. When it got to the point that he realized he wasn't going to pull through, he accepted it and expected everyone else to do the same. He faced his death as his military training had prepared him, with dignity and as an uncompromising fact of life. He had served his time and served it well. He died like the Marine he was.

The new movie "Act of Valor" is dedicated to the men of the U.S. Navy Special Forces and all military personnel who have given their lives in the service of their country. It honors all soldiers. I mention my father in this review to show that I have the utmost respect for the service these men provide to our country. I'm fearful of the world that might thrive if these men weren't dedicated to protecting the freedoms of our country. I understand what kind of person it takes to commit such sacrifice for our country. I mean no disrespect for what these men do.

That being said, "Act of Valor" is a bold experiment that succeeds in many of its aspects, but fails from a dramatic standpoint. Filmmakers Scott Waugh and Mike McCoy, through their work making recruiting films for the Navy, conceived of a military action drama starring active duty Navy SEALs. The Navy backed their idea and required SEALs to participate in the film. SEAL Team 7 is featured in the movie, including the starring roles. Their training makes them the best-suited people around to pull off authentic action scenes based on military maneuvers. It does not prepare them, however, to convincingly portray dramatic characters within a cinematic story arc.

At the moment, I haven't been able to find the names of the men portraying SEAL Team 7 in this movie, most likely because they are still active members of the unit. Perhaps this is good when discussing the acting in the film. I'll start off by saying they aren't the worst actors I've seen in legitimate dramatic movies, but they do prove the point that acting isn't as easy as it seems. They've got the love of their country down. They've got the tactical language down. They've got camaraderie mastered. Their personal dialogue and emotional output is a little wooden, however. This unfortunately leads to a lack of emotional impact for the whole of the film.

I won't place the entire blame on the SEALs' untrained acting. The script, provided by "300" screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, is clichéd and lacks any real emotional depth in itself. Even the scenes involving professional actors are mired with posturing and simplistic ideals in storytelling. The villain (Jason Cottle, "The Wedding Singer"), a terrorist who plans an attack on U.S. soil, is like something out of a James Bond movie. He flies off the handle at his own conspirators and his motivations don't seem to have much conviction behind them beyond "Death to the infidels!"

The plot seems like something inspired more by Hollywood than actual terrorist activities. The terrorists have devised a bomb device that I'm sure is out of every bomb makers' dreams, but seems unlikely to really exist. Perhaps these types of devices do exist and finding them and shutting them down is part of what SEALs do on a regular basis. I am not one to judge about that. Since this was made with real SEALs in the roles of the heroes deployed to stop such plots, I'm willing to believe that James Bond might be closer to the truth than we'd all like to think.

What the movie gets right, however, are the actual missions these men execute. The action sequences are nothing less than stunning. The first rescue mission is a fascination to watch. Everything the SEAL Team does, even when they have to change the plan, is incredibly calculated. There are mistakes, but they are effortlessly accounted for with adjustments that could only be conceived by professionals. Their use of strategy against their opponents is awesome. Their detachment is a tool that serves their missions. Seeing them at work is like seeing a different kind of art than the acting for which I'm critical.

I wonder how the filmmakers could've made this movie differently so they could achieve their objective of making Hollywood style action sequences with dramatic elements surrounding them that worked better. Perhaps a documentary style would've served their purposes better. They could stage the action, as the filmmakers do in the climbing documentary "Touching the Void". This would allow for the same impact of the harrowing nature of what these men do. Then the filmmakers could fill in around the staged sequences with traditional documentary footage that showed the SEALs in a more genuine light than the scripted words do.

My father always told me that during the Vietnam War, the scariest experience he had was running into an iguana blocking his way to the latrine one day. Like the men in this movie, I'm sure what my father experienced in the military went far beyond the horrors of facing a giant lizard. The fact that they face their duty with such valor requires our respect and deserves all the honor we can bestow upon them. "Act of Valor" may not be a great achievement in cinema, but it honors great men whose efforts might otherwise go unnoticed.

"Act of Valor" is currently playing at Marshall Cinema and at Galaxy Cinema in Sedalia.

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First, you are correct to point out my mistake in using the term "soldier" in place of "Marine." That was a mistake that my father would've corrected. Probably with a severe butt chewing. I feel I've failed him a bit to have made such a mistake, and I will correct it. Neither should I refer to Navy SEALs as soldiers. I believe they should be referred to as "sailors."

However, there is a correlation between what all military service members do for our country. This is the parallel I was going for without having to continuously switch terms for the different branches of military service by using the term 'soldier'. I welcome any advice as to a simple term that encompasses all military services.

As for the effectiveness of the drama, this is something that is a matter of opinion. It worked for you, and it does not surprise me that it works very well for most members of the military. As a critic I offer my opinion on this matter, but I can also offer expertise on matters involved in a movie that are not standard training for military personnel. That's my job.

I don't doubt the authenticity of how these men relate to each other in terms of their missions. It was the personal moments that did not ring true. As a professionally trained actor, this is an area where I speak from experience. This movie is not a documentary. It has dramatic structure to it, and as such requires the application of art. Acting is not simply talking to each other, although masters of the craft make it seem that way. There is a heightened reality that must be brought to any performance in order for it to be effective. Even "realistic" acting is not entirely realistic. It must be rendered in a way that evokes emotional response from the audience, all audiences.

This movie was not released in a military bubble. It was made to honor our military, which it does; but it was also released to the public at large. There is no ownership that belongs to any one group here. One thing I didn't mention in my review was that the Navy cooperated so heavily with the making of this film because they saw it as a recruiting opportunity. If a non-military audience can't connect with the characters, it may not be as effective as it could otherwise for recruitment purposes.

You're right that I was never in the military. I know I do little in my writing to suggest I was. However, the military commonly employs civilians to advise and offer guidance in areas that are not military specialties. As a critic, I offer my opinions on a subject I happen to know a great deal about. You can insert any snide comment you wish about "those who cannot do" if you want here. I did offer a suggestion of how to better accomplish what they meant to portray. I believe that would've made a better film.

I'm glad you enjoyed the film, and I know it will be a great crowd pleaser for current and former military personnel. My father, the Marine, would've loved it, even though it stars a bunch of squids. But a film that is offered to the general public is striving to connect with more than just military personnel. This one comes close in my opinion, but it just misses the mark.

-- Posted by ydnasllew on Wed, Feb 29, 2012, at 10:18 PM

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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.
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