Its a little strange to see co-directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, standing front and center speaking enthusiastically into the camera, addressing the audience with an introduction and primer to what to expect in their film, Act of Valor. After all, who has to handhold Joe and Jane ticket holder and set expectations for what will soon unfold before them on the big screen? The two prattle on - lauding the U.S. Navy for their unparalleled access and some spiel about the unique fortitude that each SEAL member has for their missions and code shared between brothers in arms. By the three-minute mark, I'm beginning to feel like this is a setup - some military propaganda flick, a glorified recruitment video at best. Finally McCoy delivers the hook; all the military personal are active-duty Navy SEALs, the munitions are live, and we're about to get a glimpse into the actual machinations of a SEALs operation.
Now we're getting somewhere, now at least I'm Interested.
And so it begins, a CIA agent is murdered while another is kidnapped in Costa Rica. All fingers point to an international smuggler known as Christo (Alex Veadov). Military intelligence has an idea where she's being held captive, now they need a near surgically precise team to recover the agent. Enter the Navy SEALs Bandito Platoon, lead by Lieutenant Commander Roarke (Yup his real name according to the press kit), he pulls the seven members of his team together, debrief and prep to deploy. Stats from team flash on the screen as each specialist is mentioned by name. Photo, age, rank and specialty display and I flash to where I've seen this before - every single military video game and post 9/11 military recruitment commercial I've ever played or seen.
When the mission gets underway and the operation goes live, we're given a first hand look at how a recovery assignment transacts. Unlike what we typically see in Hollywood military search and rescue films, there's no bravado, no machismo and definitely no setups for the lone wolf commando. Presented before us is the armed forces as a finely oiled machine. The orders are precise, each SEAL is focused on the task before them and communicate with very little chatter. Anticipation builds as guns are drawn after making landfall. The team maximizes the use of stealth but exercise lethal force with extreme prejudice when forced into a scrimmage. Every shot is a kill shot. Watching the men go about their singular goal to rescue the agent becomes so captivating you forget about something - the caricature of a story that ties this whole thing together.
Using real SEALs in the field as the anchor, the remaining storyline penned by 300's Kurt Johnstad is wrought with cliché plot devices and unpalatable dialog. Granted we all know SEALs don't study acting during their rigorous training but the hammy puns and awkward timing and deer-in-headlight moments clearly illustrates these war vets are out of their element. By element I mean in combat holding a gun. Johnstad really added the pork to show the tender human side of these soldiers by making Rourke an expectant father who reluctantly leaves his wife home alone in order to perform his duty. But Rourk's lack of acting chops is a beacon of uneasiness in front of the camera and those tender situations spent with family or commrades like his best friend and Second in Command Dave, seems forced, improvised and tortuous to watch. At best, I forgive them for lacking acting skills and hope they hit the ground running with an AK-45 soon. Luckily the directors realized this as well and kept the SEALs in action scenarios throughout most of the movie.
Directors McCoy and Waugh and writer Johnstad are former movie stunt performers who decided to forgo the bruises and get behind the scenes. Known mostly for their documentary work, its not surprising they found it possible to add a plausibility to their Valor project. Combining Navy footage and having access to real military bases, vehicles and personnel, they take full advantage and capture something thats quite spectacular and splendid.
The main issue I had by the end credits of Act of Valor which feature a song by Eminem, I wasn't quite sure what I just saw: A patriotic hybrid thrill ride between Hollywood and the military that just so happens to have a forgivably bad script, or the most expensive Navy propaganda film I've ever seen that has a bad script. Sure, I swelled a bit as anyone would with this not-so-subtle reminder of real men and women putting their lives on the line in this fashion for the sake of our freedom everyday. But there's also this "SEALs are cool" vibe that echoes from the start of the mission to the end. And to me, that is just this movies' way of saying, "Join the Navy!"
Valor has in its core a fascinating and thrilling action movie full of ammo-fueled gusto and hearty emotion, but its weak premise and blatant clichés work against it and slightly derails the integrity it sought to illustrate.