The theatrical release of "Act of Valor" couldn't have been timed better, arriving as it does on the heels of some high-profile special forces missions that reached a crescendo with last year's elimination of Osama bin Laden courtesy of SEAL Team 6. The SEALs have become media darlings, to the extent that retired Delta Force commander Lt. Gen. James Vaught recently advised the special forces community to "get the hell out of the media" before they undermine their low profile.
It's safe to assume Gen. Vaught won't be pleased by "Act of Valor", seeing as how the main cast is comprised of eight active duty SEALs, a move made by stuntmen-turned-directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh to put the audience "in the boots" of American soldiers and add a layer of authenticity to what might ostensibly have been just another war movie.
The results are mixed; this still plays like a standard action/war movie from the good ol' days of 1980s and '90s: thin on plot but long on pyrotechnics. 'Valor' has an intriguing hook working for it though, as well as some really, really good pyrotechnics. It also spares us the phony bravado and far-fetched escapism of more commercial Hollywood productions like "Navy SEALs," "G.I. Jane" and "Delta Force".
The movie centers on SEAL Team 7 (the men portraying them are unidentified in the credits, supposedly to protect their identities), sent to rescue a kidnapped CIA asset from a South American cartel in the film's first -- and best -- action sequence. This eventually puts them on the trail of a smuggler named Christo (Alex Veadov) who's working with an Islamic radical (Jason Cottle) planning on sneaking sixteen suicide bombers across the Mexican border and into strategic locations across the United States.
The plot extends no farther than that, though it is sprinkled with a brief glimpse of the soldiers' family life between deployments. The focus is, of course, on the action sequences, of which there are plenty, largely shot from a first-person POV and/or with a shaky handheld camera in a bid for immediacy. A lot of the footage was filmed during live-fire training exercises, meaning viewers are often seeing live rounds being used.
It's exhilarating at first, but the running gun battles eventually become repetitive, and since so little has been invested into developing the characters, there's a limited feeling of jeopardy. It makes for chaotic and impersonal viewing that often plays like "Call of Duty: The Motion Picture".
The clunkiness is to be both expected though, and it is easily forgiven. The SEALs who portray the team's leader and second-in-command are charismatic and talented enough non-actors to be watchable, and heaven knows there are plenty of full-time actors who have built multi-million dollar careers on more stilted performances. The rest of the team is just as game, but are unfortunately shoved into the background without a chance to make as much of an impression. The rough edges of the main cast is are smoothed by a strong supporting cast of character actors that includes Emilio Rivero, Nestor Serrano and Roselyn Sanchez.
Not surprisingly, the project began as a recruitment film (and technically it still is). While it is a mixed bag as an action flick, 'Valor' succeeds admirably in cleanly and clearly illustrating the hardships soldiers endure and the personal sacrifices they often make, while treating its subject with a degree of reverence verging on abject hero worship.