Ten minutes into “Act of Valor”, I could practically hear the voice of Homer Simpson in my head, delivering his own critique of the movie: “Ooh, propatainment!”
Boasting the full cooperation of the Pentagon and featuring actual United States special-forces operatives playing all the lead characters who “defend our freedom from terror and tyranny,” it’s hard to call “Act of Valor” anything but propaganda; indeed, the film was originally floated by stuntmen-turned-directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh as a high-octane recruitment short, before it got bumped up into a feature-length fiction film.
With its heli-dropped SOCR boats on a remote Costa Rican river, mid-Pacific rendezvous with nuclear submarines, covert monitoring of a Somali desert, and high-tech gadgets such as the hand-launched MQ-9 Reaper drone or the SDV Mk8 mini-sub, “Act of Valor” is nothing if not an advertisement for the global projection of American lethal force. After seeing this flick, even Megatron would think twice about his evil plans for global domination.
“Act of Valor” is hardly the first movie to look at America’s elite team of super-soldiers, the Navy SEALs — see Charlie Sheen’s laughably jingoistic and originally titled “Navy Seals” from 1990 — but it’s the first to claim full tactical realism, and the first to appear since the real-life SEALs slipped back into the headlines after taking out Osama bin Laden.
The story involves a team of SEALs — led by Lt. Rorke and SOC Dave (both actual active-duty SEALs; their full names remain classified) — ordered to rescue a CIA agent who’s been captured and tortured by a Latin American drug cartel. Once they’ve sprung her, further intelligence points to a plot in which drug smugglers and Chechen jihadists unite to launch a wave of suicide bombings inside the United States. The film more or less winds up being a commercial for the further militarization of the war on drugs and Mexican border control.
Almost everybody commenting on this film has noted the wooden performances given by nonactors Dave and Rorke, but really, wooden compared to whom? Sylvester Stallone? Jason Statham? Gerard Butler? Would it have been better if they had made wisecracks before taking the bad guys out with head-shots? (And it’s not hard to imagine the liberal squeals of outrage that would have ensued.) Personally, I found the lack of action-movie B.S. refreshing.
But truth be told, there’s precious little acting required, because “Act of Valor” isn’t a story: It’s a tactical situation. The filmmakers use multiple helmet-mounted cameras to capture a first-person-shooter perspective familiar from the realm of video games. Watching the film, you wonder more whether you can get through the level without losing any points than you actually care about any of the characters involved. The finale’s military funeral is robbed of any poignancy due to this thinness of characterization.
Taken as a shoot-‘em-up, “Act of Valor” certainly succeeds. Military hardware fetishists will be in heaven, as this anti-“Black Hawk Down” shows what a high-tech, precision-trained team is capable of when everything goes right. (And the presence of author Tom Clancy’s name in the credits should tell you all you need to know.) It is a propaganda film, however, and your entertainment value will clearly be influenced by where on the “beacon of liberty”/”imperial bully” axis your views of 21st-century America lie.