Act of Valor (United States, 2012)

February 22, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Act of Valor Poster

Watching a movie like Act of Valor, it becomes clear how much synergy currently exists between film and video games. As the latter becomes increasingly more "cinematic" in the way action is depicted, there are times when the former adopts the style and approach favored by some games. Act of Valor is one such example; the experience of watching it unfold feels almost incomplete without a controller gripped tightly in two sweaty hands. Character and narrative have largely been jettisoned in favor of depicting several high-energy "missions" that are loosely connected.

Act of Valor's "hook," which can be seen as either a marketing gimmick or a genuine attempt to do things a little differently, is that the Navy SEALs in the film are played by real-life, active SEALs. As a result, the lead actors are unnamed (to protect the identity of the soldiers), the level of dramatic acting is on par with what can be expected from a high school play, and the Navy had approval of the final cut. The result is a too-thick sense of reverence for the SEALs; instead of being rounded characters, they are types akin to the brave men in John Wayne's The Green Berets. White hats abound; these men are not just physically superior patriots - they embody all that's good and true about human nature. There's something old-fashioned and a little refreshing about a movie that unabashedly represents its protagonists as heroes, but it gets in the way of seeing the SEALs in Act of Valor as real people. Instead, the leads are most readily identified as "the lieutenant with the baby on the way" and "the chief with a large family."

Act of Valor's first mission sends the SEALs into Central America to rescue a captured CIA agent (Roselyn Sanchez) who is being tortured by terrorists. The chief bad guys are a smuggler named Christo (Alex Veadov) and an Islamic nutjob named Karimov (Dimiter Marinov), who have joined forces to plant 18 suicide bombers in strategic locations across the United States. Their goal: kill thousands of people and create a world economic collapse. Act of Valor traces groups of SEALs as they capture targets, glean important information (without resorting to torture - that would blemish the white hats), and stop the terrorists before they cross the U.S. border with Mexico. The narrative as a whole is not well developed and is at times borderline-incoherent; the riveting aspect of Act of Valor is the battles.

Often presented from a first-person perspective shot by a shaky camera, Act of Valor's firefights are glorious examples of cinematic chaos. They make the battle scenes in Black Hawk Down seem like well-ordered, precise depictions of modern warfare. The fact that it's often difficult, and sometimes impossible, to figure out what's going on is of limited concern since we're not invested in any of the characters. Who lives or dies isn't important; what's important is the experience. It's Call of Dut (or any similar game) on the big screen, and there's a visceral thrill. Only afterward does it become clear how hollow and empty it all is.

The incorporation of SEALs into the fabric of Act of Valor's production strips away a layer of Hollywood sheen from the vision of combat represented here. In broad strokes, it's not that different from what we have seen dozens of times before, but the details hint at an insider's perspective. Little things, like the release of an unmanned drone to monitor activities during the rescue operation or the way the SEALs get on and off a submarine, are what make Act of Valor more intriguing than the average entry into this genre - even if it sometimes comes across as a Navy recruiting film.

Act of Valor isn't a movie in any real or meaningful sense. What is it? A hybrid perhaps? A glimpse into the future of blockbuster entertainment, where the thrill of the moment, assembled for an audience with a microsecond attention span, trumps all other concerns? I suspect most gamers will appreciate this, if only for the familiarity it provides. The best I can say is that I was never bored, although I was never overwhelmed, either. There are enough small things to keep it interesting even when many of the big things fail.

Act of Valor (United States, 2012)

Director: Mike McCoy, Scott Waugh
Cast: Roselyn Sanchez, Alex Veadov, Dimiter Marinov
Screenplay: Kurt Johnstad
Cinematography: Shane Hurlbut
Music: Nathan Furst
U.S. Distributor: Relativity Media
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: 2012-02-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1