Friday, February 24, 2012

Act of Valor: Explosive but emotionally barren

Act of Valor (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: R, for strong violence, torture and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.24.12

Act of Valor opens with a prologue, as its directors — Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh — explain their decision to use actual active-duty U.S. Navy SEALS in the “drama” that follows.

You'd think that savvy American soldiers might suspect, while trying to locate
and neutralize bomb-toting jihadists, that one of them might set off her explosive
vest prematurely. Alas, this contingency apparently comes as a complete surprise
to our heroes, as they infiltrate a Mexican drug smuggler's warren of tunnels.
This decision was justified, they insist, in order to capture the boots-on-the-ground authenticity of actual firefights, and because no actor could replicate the pain of leaving loved ones behind, while deploying for each new and dangerous mission.


McCoy and Waugh, far more enthusiastic than articulate, punctuate this little sermon with clips from the movie we’re about to see: an irritating affectation borrowed from similarly phony “reality” TV shows that conclude each 10-minute segment with scenes of what we’ll see after the commercial break, and then open the next segment with scenes of what we just saw before the commercial break. (The producers of such junk programs clearly believe they’re playing to a nation of Alzheimer’s patients with no short-term memory.)

Then, their rather silly rationalization over, McCoy and Waugh cut to a short text screen that explains that what follows is “based on real acts of valor.”

Methinks the gentlemen do protest too much.

Act of Valor excels in its use of hardware, military jargon and genuinely awesome we-are-there camera work. McCoy, Waugh and cinematographer Shane Hurlbut had unprecedented access to Navy planes, boats and hardware, not to mention an aircraft carrier and an SSGN submarine. Whenever possible, shooting incorporated Navy training sessions and “practice missions” that employed live ammunition.

The result, at times, can be viewed as the best Navy recruitment film money could buy. Several of the action sequences are crisply staged and genuinely exciting, and scripter Kurt Johnstad’s core narrative certainly plays on our up-to-the-minute fears of what jihadist combatants might do, in worst-case scenarios.

And let’s be clear: Act of Valor always respects its subject and these “real SEALs.” Indeed, this movie came together — and the Navy granted its cooperation — on the basis of a 2007 short documentary that McCoy and Waugh made about the U.S. Naval Special Warfare combatant-craft crewmen. This new film concludes with a text crawl that names and honors Naval Special Warfare members killed during recent missions, at which point Tuesday evening’s preview crowd burst into applause. Who wouldn’t?

In no way, then, are my subsequent remarks intended to disparage these elite warriors, or otherwise criticize the fine and vital work they do.

But let it be said: They aren’t actors.

Its virtues aside, Act of Valor suffers from the shortcomings of afternoon TV soap operas: persistent close-ups on faces, to help “sell” a scene’s dramatic impact, since the on-camera line deliveries are as flat and lifeless as a sheet of plywood. Some of these guys almost — almost — get away with the clipped, jargon-heavy dialogue of briefing scenes, but their efforts at “spontaneous banter” are wincingly, thuddingly awful.

And that’s the key problem with any project of this nature. It’s not spontaneous — of course it isn’t — and anybody with half an ounce of sense knows this. The result is neither fish nor fowl: neither actual documentary nor fictitious drama, but rather an uneasy blend of the two.

Every time we briefly fall under the spell of believing that we’re charging alongside these guys as they enter the chaos of a firefight, we’ll suddenly remember that somebody had to take the time to set up the cameras, ensure that the lighting was as desired, check makeup and verify that everybody knows how to hit their marks, and call “Action!” Quite a few times, more than likely.

McCoy and Waugh also have an irritating fondness for unusual, jiggly point-of-view shots. Thus, much of this footage comes courtesy of helmet cams, motorcycle handlebar cams, rifle scope cams, truck fender cams and any other moving object onto which a camera could be — and is — attached. I understand the desire for cinema verité realism, but a little of that nonsense goes a long way ... and McCoy and Waugh overplay that card.

Johnstad’s story is tense, effectively suspenseful and frequently nasty. Our primary bad guy, a jihadist calling himself Shabal (Jason Cottle, quite chilling), demonstrates his ruthlessness by driving a bomb-laden ice cream truck into a Manila schoolyard filled with children; he then leaves, after having left behind a “true believer” — young, female, frightened — to press the trigger. Which she does.

Shabal is allied with Christo (Alex Veadov), a drug smuggler with conduits all over the world. This relationship comes to the attention of Lisa Morales (Roselyn Sanchez), an undercover CIA agent working as a clinic doctor in Costa Rica. Unfortunately, Christo learns of her duplicity before she can report her intel; Morales is kidnapped and tortured — brutally — in an effort to learn what she knows.

Cottle, Veadov and Sanchez are actual actors. It shows; their scenes — their dialogue and comfort within their characters — are far more powerful than any “acting” attempted by the others, who never are identified in the film (or credits) beyond their first names. One assumes this is some half-baked attempt to preserve their real-world identities, but that seems rather silly, when their faces are splashed three stories high on movie screens.


Back in the States, word of Morales’ plight reaches our SEAL warriors, who are given the anticipated mission: Rescue Morales from the jungle camp where she’s being held, taking down anybody who gets in the way.

(Just in passing, it’s refreshing to see shooters actually hit what they aim at, as opposed to movies that spray bullets that miraculously never reach their targets.

(That said, watching a bad guy’s brains blown out by sniper fire gets tiresome after the 20th or 30th time. Enough, already!)

The mission goes slightly awry, despite the use of some truly nifty Navy assault tech. But Morales is saved, and she lives to report her findings. That’s when things turn truly bad, because now our heroes know the actual plan: Using Christo’s smuggling pipeline, Shabal intends to sneak 16 jihadists into the United States, where they’ll scatter and position themselves in highly populated places such as football games and the Las Vegas strip.

They’ll then detonate bomb-laden vests laced with ceramic ball bearings, the latter undetectable by any metal scanners. The grisly loss of life will be unimaginable.

The subsequent action moves from Manila and Costa Rica to the South Pacific and a drug-running tunnel from Mexico into the United States. No expense is spared during this film’s many skirmishes, and, yes, there’s an undeniable hell-yeah gusto to watching criminal scum overpowered by superior Naval weaponry.

Even when the bad guys haul out rocket launchers, a Naval swift boat or helicopter is — amazingly — right where it needs to be, in order to blow the thugs into the arms of their waiting 72 dark-eyed virgins. Forget due process; this is take-no-prisoners warfare.

Although we’re introduced, early on, to eight SEALs, this group is augmented by many other warriors as the film progresses. We get to know only two: Rorke, who has left a pregnant wife back home (Ailsa Marshall, also a working actress); and his best friend, Dave. Their rapport is all-encompassing; their families get together all the time. And if Rorke and Dave could act, well, we’d probably be more emotionally invested in them.

Alas, this film’s top-notch production values notwithstanding, at the end of the day it all feels staged and hokey, like the series of training exercises it obviously is. McCoy and Waugh would have done far better to expand their earlier 7-minute short into a feature-length documentary; then we’d genuinely bond with these guys.

Even so, I won’t be surprised if Navy enlistment goes up, following this film’s release. And that’s certainly not a bad outcome.

1 comment:

  1. I agree wholeheartedly that this movie is clunky, and I applaud you for picking up on the things that ring false in this movie, even if it's somewhat obvious that you don't know all of the back story of Why it rings off.

    For starters, let's start with the fact that the making of this movie probably (for terms best understood) resembles much of what went on in "The Pentagon Wars" but between the Navy Admiralty (referred to as "The Upper Deck" in common jargon). What you see in this film is pretty indicative of what you would see as a recruitment poster, and what most combat arms people see as the Upper Deck's preference of how their pet operators should be like. There are SEVERAL things that read false about this film.

    1. Operators have family. Ops. Let me clarify something. Jargon time. Operator: N. common term in the Special Operations community, and for that matter the Combat Arms in general, of someone who does Special Operations for a living. IE, Green Barets, SEALS, DELTA, Rangers, Force Recon. These guys are Operatives. Surprisingly, a term you don't hear much out of this film though it's common for them to refer to themselves as such. But back to original point. Operators just don't typically have the sort of family lives that you see so nicely and squarely put forth on the screen. Even there, the nice gathering of the boys and the families is good right up till it's time for the LT to give the Huah! speech. Then the families are put to the side of the stage and the mission is what takes precedence. Consequently, this is WHY most in combat arms and Spec Ops don't have families. It's an old story, and cliche' because it's pretty much common sense.

    2. That "Strong but Silent Type"...
    Derrick, you pegged this right off. The guys who are active duty don't seem to be doing too well with their lines. That's because only on some Upper Deck's fantasy paperwork do they talk like you've seen in the movie. I was sitting there watching them on the first mission with a frown and said to my friend "They're talking too much." Even for a regular infantry unit, the lowest trained grunt, there is just too much chatter on the mission. It doesn't work like that. Where you would see on screen the LT speaking into his mike to give orders, in reality, it would be one break squelch, maybe two depending on what they set up for coms, and that would be about it. And then bam, things would get done. The only time you get traffic over net is when things go wrong and the plan needs adjusting, or you have to report up the chain for intel purposes. If the dialog seems stilted coming out of the mouths of the active duty guys, that's why. It IS out of place. It's NOT what they usually say and it's Not their comfort zone to be talking that much anyway.