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Review: 'Act Of Valor' Lives Out The Hopeless Nihilism Of The Modern Action Movie

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by Gabe Toro
February 23, 2012 6:34 PM
8 Comments
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Act Of Valor

What have you done today? Probably nothing, says “Act Of Valor,” the new military recruitment film from directors 'Mouse' McCoy and Scott Waugh. A title card appears early explaining that the film is "based on real acts of valor,” which is a nice way of saying none of this is true, but it probably happened at some point in spirit, because you can’t snuff the spirit of heroism. Which is why “Act Of Valor” tries to trump all modern action pictures by claiming to be the real deal, down to the marketing-ready gimmick of casting actual Navy SEALs. Feeling inadequate yet?

The story of “Act Of Valor” is strictly streamlined b-movie territory. There’s a rogue terrorist, with ties to the Russian mafia, the Taliban and Mexican drug cartels. Somehow, they could not cram the Yakuza into this thing. He’s planning the sort of massive terrorist attack that only a Hollywood screenwriter (like, say, Kurt Johnstad of “300”) could plan, involving suicide bombers escaping over the border with ceramic necklaces undetectable by common metal detectors, but containing enough firepower for one terrorist to favorably compare the plan's possible impact to that of 9/11. No, he doesn’t say it would be “9/11 times one hundred,” but he comes close.

Act Of Valor

Our unbilled heroes, played by actual Navy SEALs, are a demographically-friendly group of grunts who deploy and become killing machines, never missing their targets. They’re brave, heroic, and tough enough to take a rocket launcher to the chest and live (not a typo). We don’t spend much time with them outside of combat -- one has a family and kids, and we see him wishing a teary-eyed goodbye to his real life wife, who has to re-enact the sick possibility that she may be pregnant with a kid as her actual husband is making possibly fatal heroic decisions in another country. These are not actors, so it seems particularly sadistic to this woman, who never gets anything substantial to say or do because the women at home don’t commit Real Acts Of Valor.

It's not clear exactly what we're fighting for, either. Again, it's the Drug Movie Conundrum, where you justify the ugliness but never the recovery. "Act Of Valor" wants to toss the bullets around and blow up the bad guys. But does it want to protect America? If so, why? One soldier carries an actual American flag in his pocket, given to him by his father. But what is he preserving at home? What was his bloodline like? The movie lacks the human element to make us root for its heroes; instead the film drowns in gunfire, and mantras take the place of dialogue. We can't even cheer on our lead characters, none of whom are given any personality beyond the film's initial exposition. It's a nihilist's approach to filmmaking, common to modern American cinema in that it wants shit to blow up good, but doesn't care about why, or what, the repercussions might be.

Act Of Valor

So we’re left with two blond, corn-fed slabs of meat as our leads. Together with some faceless token minorities and a couple more white dudes, they take the battle to land, sea and air. The first mission is the most conventionally entertaining, with the soldiers tasked with extracting a CIA operative who is objectified in two ways, being played by midriff-baring actress Roselyn Sanchez, and then being tortured and beaten until she’s turned into hamburger. She survives her beatings without giving up intel, so maybe that counts as a Real Act Of Valor.

A siege at sea follows, with the film’s second extended skydiving sequence (if you’ve got it, flaunt it) leading to the SEALs intercepting a yacht housing a terrorist operative who surrounds himself with bikini-clad supermodels. When the bullets go flying, the girls literally disappear and are never heard from again. You’d think they’d be hard to miss. The third and fourth assaults occur on land in Mexico, but by that point, you could put any of the gun battles in a random order and achieve the same storytelling results.

Act Of Valor

You can’t accurately 'review' “Act Of Valor” since it’s not a work of art. It’s not attempting to challenge any notions or ideas about your regular life: It’s propaganda. Of course every piece of intel is accurate. Of course our heroes are fairly flawless -- they use foul language once, to lightly mock each other. And of course the captain is going to threaten a terrorist with a detention center by pausing mid-taunt to say he would be treated “fairly and humanely.” The point of propaganda is that it aims to eliminate the need for actual human drama and the possibility that extremely difficult choices may change our characters. It’s also not much fun to watch.

The novelty of casting actual SEALs is also a false concession to 'realism.' Action pictures used to pride themselves on creating imaginary worlds for larger-than-life heroes to march through, because that required a bit of creativity and ingenuity, and some jerk in the audience wouldn’t complain about it not being similar to the YouTube video he saw where a soldier fires a few rounds with actual weapons. Now it’s all about verisimilitude -- the modern action director lacks the creativity to generate his own fictional world, so he/she tries to ape ours.

Act Of Valor

Of course, this is not new, and neither is the approach by directors McCoy and Waugh, who switch between videogame visual vocabulary like shooter POV and over-the-shoulder shakycam. By flattering the ego of the viewer under the guise of “you-are-there” realism, you dehumanize the already one-dimensional characters. In the battlefield, it makes sense that these soldiers would become unquestioning automatons. In a movie, it’s a bit more queasy when they shoot up, and basically destroy, a small Mexican pueblo housing terrorist weapons. These are real SEALs and, according to the press notes, real artillery was used, so obviously all those local Mexican villagers were in on this terrorist scheme, right?

“Act Of Valor” will stand out due to its unconventional casting, but that’s the sort of detail that doesn’t matter in today’s filmmaking world. We have enough CGI and special effects, some more subtle than others, that for years now movies have been turning people like Tobey Maguire into 'badasses', neglecting any need for either a make-believe beefhead like Sylvester Stallone or, in this case, the real thing. These soldiers in “Act Of Valor” serve our country, they put their life on the line to provide a service to our land of which most of us could not dream. McCoy and Waugh, and every other misguided producer on this cynical exercise in graphic violence, repay this dedication by turning them into just more standard issue action movie drones, cannon fodder for the popcorn-devouring masses. [F]

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8 Comments

  • gabesNemesisGary | September 4, 2012 12:58 AMReply

    Your a wrong dbag, but let's pretend your right for a moment, did the armed forces pay for this film, probably , most likely . Is it propaganda no. The toys ours rangers and seal teams use today we won't have a clue exist for decades. Did u want to watch a snuff film of them double tap Osama and dump his ass off an aircraft carrier, that would have cool but unamerican. So given they couldn't make a story on active missions, didn't want piss off any friendly countries. They came up with a winning formula. The movie had a very call of duty feel and look. If you can make a movie that people will pay to see , connect the audience emotionally to, and can catch both gamers and veterans in their demographics, you made a good film. Which act of valor is. The reason you didn't get the movie probably because you don't know the meaning of the word "valor"

  • LARRY HARDIN, P.I. | March 13, 2012 10:11 PMReply

    For a differing opinion, see this review: http://bit.ly/ySWQJr

  • Athena | March 5, 2012 12:18 PMReply

    This "review" is offensive, disrespectful and illustrative of an ungrateful, truly ignorant person. How dare you portray the military and the US in this way! How easy is it for you to sit in whatever pathetic hole you find yourself in with a laptop and write this crap while others risk lives to sustain our freedoms and life as we know it. This "writer" would be well served to choose a different career where others are not subjected to his misguided opinions.

  • Mary | February 28, 2012 3:34 PMReply

    Truly remarkable that this low-life reviewer, wallowing in his hate for the U.S and the military,
    has to play the race card when describing the two leads. So pathetic.

  • bill | February 27, 2012 9:09 PMReply

    this review is complete horse shit. but it makes sense a pussy like you(the writer) is too much of a little chicken shit to risk you life and get off your fat ass and try to make a difference in the world. fuck you sir

  • Abcde | February 25, 2012 1:54 AMReply

    This review is a little sick. It grossly debases a film that for all it's "shoot 'em up" flaws also has strong camerawork and one of the best audio tracks in recent history. The plot does take place largely away from U.S. soil, but that is to be expected of Seals that are on tour. The exposition repeated throughout serves as a reminder of what many warriors feel. The goal is to always go home. The word propaganda is a grotesque twist of language. The film may serve that purpose, but it was not a U.S. Gov't project, and so cannot be named as such. The film was made as a testimonial memory dedicated to U.S. warriors. It serves that purpose in a unique and strikingly strong way. Unlike films such as We Were Soldiers and Glory, Act of Valor focuses it's screen-time on in-battle chemistry between the soldiers instead of their familial relationships. This is partly due to the fact that the film is set in battle, and partly to the fact that the familial relationships would be largely out of context between the fights. The film deals with this fact in it's opening mantra "Trust me; it's all about going home". The film is largely frame style with narration to the child of an officer. This allows subtle scene changes and backs up the semi-frequent quotes that are supposed to give insight into the soldiers' minds. The film ends with a short dedication and the saying With Valor there is Hope. While possibly lending itself to pro-military views it is not a call to arms, but a tribute to the past and present who have served with valor. It may not be your favorite dinner-time feature, but as a stand-alone in the theater this film is fantastic. It gives opportunity to consider the trials that soldiers face, while avoiding the documentary style that makes it hard to sit through the old Gettysburg trilogy. A good film overall.

  • jimmiescoffee | February 23, 2012 11:35 PMReply

    [F].

  • JD | February 23, 2012 9:08 PMReply

    To qoute CLERKS: "Oooooo! NAVY Seals!"

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