Fox // 2012 // 111 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // July 16th, 2012
The theatrical release of Act of Valor was accompanied by exactly the sort of pearl clutching and fainting couch histrionics one would expect of film critics who prefer war flicks featuring Matt Damon or Jake Gyllenhaal discovering American GIs are genocidal miscreants. The movie was widely accused of being pro-American propaganda (oh, no!). It's not, though -- unless "propaganda" means "I don't agree with it." Besides, there are many legitimate reasons to criticize Act of Valor that have nothing to do with its refusing to walk in lockstep with left-wing dogma.
When things go squirrely for CIA agent Lisa Morales (Rosalyn Sanchez, The Game Plan), she ends up in the hands of some very nasty terrorists. Bandito Platoon, SEAL Team Seven is sent to the rescue. Using a combination of state-of-the-art technology and good old-fashioned combat training, the SEALs kick serious ass.
The rescue of Morales puts Bandito Platoon on the hunt for the man she was spying on: a Russian Jew nicknamed Christo (Alex Veadov, Drag Me to Hell) who is financing a Chechen jihadist named Abu Shabal (Jason Cottle, The Wedding Singer). Shabal is planning to do some very, very bad things. The SEALs must stop him. More butt-kicking ensues.
Act of Valor is a weird and ill-advised hybrid of action film and IMAX-style documentary. The combat scenes are spectacular in every way. Rejecting Hollywood's current love affair with the shaky cam, cinematographer Shane Hurlbut (Terminator Salvation) shoots the sequences with the same precision and professionalism with which the SEALs carry out their missions. Shots are attractively framed. The action itself is kinetic, but surprisingly subdued (for the most part) when compared to the over-the-top movie action we've become accustomed to. There's not a lot of bright orange fireballs or bad guys being ground into hamburger by high caliber weapons, but suspense and swift death abound.
It would be mesmerizing stuff if directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh hadn't chased after the bad idea of having active duty SEALs try to act. The guys who play leads Chief Dave and Lieutenant Rorke aren't as bad you'd think, but that's mostly because screenwriter Kurt Johnstad constructed the movie's backstory elements out of flat dialogue and every war movie cliché imaginable. The main action is framed by Chief Dave's voice-over narration. He reads a letter to Rorke's unborn child -- and we all know what happens to any war movie character that has an unborn child, right? And I'm no wilting flower, but even I found some of the narration at the end, in which Chief Dave recommends that the kid learn to bottle up his emotions, more than a little philosophically disturbing.
Anything outside of the fascinating set pieces of SEALs doing what they do feels entirely extraneous. Occasionally, the verisimilitude of the action even undermines the drama. A sequence in which Senior Chief Miller (played by another actual SEAL) interrogates Christo is almost certainly more realistic than what we usually see in movies, but it's also less dramatic. There's little witty repartee between the soldier and the terrorist. Instead, Miller walks into the room knowing where Christo is vulnerable and exploits that vulnerability with a quiet, unemotional bluntness to get what he wants. It's fascinating to watch in its own way, but it doesn't make good storytelling.
And that's Act of Valor in a nutshell: getting to see Navy SEALs do what they do with a maximum of professionalism and zero in the way of superheroics is interesting, but it doesn't make a good fictional action movie.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Act of Valor is that it was shot with digital SLR cameras (the Canon 5D Mark II). The results are astounding. Colors are rich and vibrant. Detail is excellent. Depth and clarity rivals what you'd expect from a big-budget Hollywood production. The Blu-ray presentation is 1080p/AVC framed at the movie's original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track in 5.1 surround is punchy and loud. Combat noises are in-your-face, while the mix handles dialogue and other quiet moments with aplomb.
This two-disc set comes with a Blu-ray edition of the film, along with a DVD and digital copy. Extras on the Blu-ray include a director's commentary, an introduction by the directors, a half dozen deleted scenes, interviews with the SEALs, four making-of featurettes, and a music video of Keith Urban's "For You." The most insane of the featurettes is "Real Bullets," which runs just over two minutes and reveals that some of the action sequences were staged using live ammunition.
Act of Valor isn't, as many critics have claimed, lame-brained propaganda aimed squarely at the boot-in-yer-ass redneck crowd. It's better than that (and a lot more subtle). Unfortunately, it's still not all that good. The startling action sequences make it worth watching at least once, though.
Not guilty (just barely).
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Music Video
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy
* YouTube Channel