Act of Valor is an amped-up, action-packed adventure about the exploits of the Navy's Sea, Air and Land commando teams, aka the SEALs. It's a furiously macho saga scripted by the screenwriter of 300 and starring those always-get-their-man men of mystery: real Navy SEALs.
What the filmmaking duo who bill themselves as "the Bandito Brothers" have concocted is an episodic, reverent round-the-world sprint that follows a team of SEALs as they hunt Islamic terrorists, narco terrorists, arms smugglers and their fellow travelers from Africa to Central America. They're trying to stop a team of suicide bombers from getting across the U.S. border.
In bracing, first-person-shooter video game-style photography, we follow a platoon of "operators," as they're called — Rorke, Mikey, Dave, et. al — as they rescue a CIA agent (Roselyn Sanchez) before she can be tortured to death, hound a smuggler (Alex Veadov, not the most arresting villain) who is aiding terrorists, and pursue the Chechnyan mastermind (Jason Cottle) who wants to strike America and cause a global economic collapse.
The SEALs themselves are only sketched in — the veteran chief, the expectant dad, assorted strong, elemental men. Their names are left off the credits. They're all about mission, "code" and "ethos." Writer Kurt Johnstad's testosterone-laced script is built around a SEAL's narration, a letter suggesting the generations of tough military men who spawned this current outfit, the love of staying "dangerous" into their golden years, the lack of fear. He has the narrator quote Shawnee chief Tecumseh: "Sing your death song and die like a hero going home."
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Corny, yes. As is the title, Act of Valor. But effective.
I appreciated the movie's limited chest-thumping, its lack of zingy one-liners and politics. These guys are all business.
The narration might be portentous in the extreme: "Put your pain in a box. Lock it down." But the dialogue among the SEALs is simple and unadorned, if littered with military acronyms and jargon. The characters don't talk about sacrifice; they just do it. They might be sentimental, but they hide it. There's no time for grief or panic in the middle of a gun battle. "Be advised, Mikey is down. Repeat, Mikey is down."
The fellows who rescue kidnap victims and free hijacked ships, and who took down Osama bin Laden, are serious soldiers, close-knit and guarded. In the film's brilliantly shot and cut combat scenes, their elite (and unseen) training pays off, the necessity of their high-tech hardware is illuminated. And yet when bullets are flying, they are going to take casualties. They bleed. They aren't supermen or Hollywood action heroes. They're dealing with deadly foes who can hurt them.
"Remember, they do this for a living, too," one chief warns the team about the terrorists.
The scenes between the action blocks are generic "soldiers on leave" stuff, sentimental and stiff. And there's no time to show mission preparation between the Swift boat "extractions" and the super-secret submarine deployments.
The cinematography — a mix of nervous hand-held, shooter's point-of-view shots, night-vision footage and extreme close-ups — was masterfully handled by Shane Hurlbut (We Are Marshall) and assembled by a crack team of editors into a breathless rush.
The Bandito Brothers — Mike "Mouse" McCoy and Scott Waugh — have made what amounts to a recruiting film. But it's a visceral and entertaining recruiting film, and if it gets more people to sign up and try and get into the SEALs, so be it. We'd all sleep a little easier if there were a few more of the "damn few" in this elite corps.