A film review by Craig J. Koban March 2, 2012


2012, R, 101 mins.


SEAL Team 7 members: Anonymous / CIA agent:  Roselyn Sanchez / Christo: Alex Veadov / Karimov: Dimiter Marinov

Directed by Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh / Written by Kurt Johnstad

ACT OF VALOR is perhaps the worst film about Navy SEALs since…well…1990’s NAVY SEALS.  There has certainly been a tidal wave of fist-pumping patriotism for the Navy's active duty Sea, Air, and Land team operatives ever since Osama bin Laden’s elimination and extermination by SEAL Team 6.  To be fair, it's noble-minded to make a reverent film homage to such gallant heroism.  Yet, the problem with ACT OF VALOR is not that its heart is in the wrong place, but rather that it emerges as nothing more than an obvious recruitment ad stretched out to 90-plus minutes.  Worse yet, the film is a stilted gimmick.  

In 2007 former stuntmen-turned-filmmakers Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh decided to film a video intended for recruitment purposes of the SEALs in action.  The pair seemed convinced during production that a full length action film, of sorts, could be made about these real life military men and that no group of actors could possibly or plausibly portray the rigors of SEAL combat.  

As a result, McCoy and Waugh decided to use actual serving SEAL team members (whose identities are not revealed in the film, even during its opening and end credits) and build an entire film around them.  They used actual SEAL team missions as narrative jumping off points, have recreated them within the film and have even gone on to claim that, in certain instances, live ammunition was actually used.  That’s the aforementioned “gimmicky” hook of ACT OF VALOR, but it becomes all the more glaring within the film’s first few minutes that its purported “realism” with using “active SEAL team members” is nothing more than a shallow marketing tool to get people into the theatre.  Beyond this hook, there’s simply not much to recommend here on an innovation level. 

ACT OF VALOR involves members of SEAL Team 7 and, as specified, they are played by real unidentified serving men.  Their fictitious enemy in the story is a vile jihadist named Karimov (Dimiter Marinov) that - surprise, surprise - has an intense hostility towards the United States and wants its eminent destruction.  He has conspired with a smuggler named Christo (Alex Veadov) to plant multiple suicide bombers - wearing special vest-bombs that are undetectable to any type of known metal detection - in key cities in the U.S.  They wish to detonate all of the devices in unison and bring about the utter financial collapse of America and, in the process, make 9/11 look like a Sunday school picnic… 

…that is…unless SEAL Team 7 has anything to say about it! 

The SEALs themselves engage in an initial mission in the film that takes them to Central America where they must rescue a captured CIA agent (the beautiful Roselyn Sanchez, brutally reduced to a tortuous punching bag in the film) that is being held by Islamic terrorists.  With the Intel they gather on that mission and a few others to come, the SEALs begin to collect together the necessary pieces of Christo and Krimov's destructive end game.  They finally come to the conclusion that the suicide bombers are going to attempt to get into the U.S. via a secret and largely unprotected underground border crossing and if they are successful they will essentially be able to enter America and quickly become undetectable “ghosts”… 



…that is…unless SEAL Team 7 has anything to say about it! 

Okay, sarcasm aside, I will concede this about ACT OF VALOR: when it focuses primarily on the action scenes involving the reality-based SEAL team members, the film is on reliably secured and exhilarating footing.  When the bullets and rockets are flying ACT OF VALOR is never, ever dull and certainly feels convincing.  Yet, the damning aspect of ACT OF VALOR’s wanton violence is that it's so head-shakingly black and white: this film presents war and battle at its most jingoistic and disapprovingly simplistic.  The screenplay (credited to 300 scribe Kurt Johnstad) concocts villains that hit every single extreme Muslim whacko stereotype in the book while, at the same times, portrays the SEALs as bland, stiff, and mindlessly patriotic props that serve God and country without ever questioning the validity and consequences of their missions.  I am sure that SEAL Team members are indeed brave, tough as nails, and love their country, but this film’s SEALs are nothing more than flag waving marionette puppets that feel like they just walked off the set of TEAM AMERICA.  

Also, for a film that has gone completely out of its way to advertise that its battles have a verisimilitude beyond compare, it’s kind of ironic how ACT OF VALOR often reduces its action to the type of flashy artifice that you’d find in any CALL OF DUTY video game.  It’s somewhat offensive for a film to tip off its story with a tasteless scene involving the mass execution of children that is followed by the malicious torture of a woman and then devalue those moments with audience-pandering first-person shooter perspectives that make ACT OF VALOR feel disturbingly like a cathartic video game.  It’s one thing to ground a war film in a you-are-there veracity (like, say, THE HURT LOCKER), but ACT OF VALOR uses so many video game-styled visual flourishes that it betrays any semblance of gritty authenticity that it was going for.  It has been said that modern video games have permeated the look of many Hollywood productions, and ACT OF VALOR makes that assertion distressingly clear.  

The “stars” of the film, if you can call them that, are also the best and worst thing about the film.  They are more than adept at believably engaging in the film’s parade of violent chaos, but when it comes to portraying the quieter and more introspective moments of their respective characters, they are hopeless amateurs.  Their individual line readings are stiff, emotionless, and woefully distract from the film’s attempts at “realism”, but it may not entirely be the SEAL Team members’ faults.  The script is awash with so many cockamamie war film clichés and character contrivances that perhaps even actors of depth would have issues with infusing some soul into the proceedings.  Attempts at fleshing out the various team members are unmitigated failures: there is not one distinct or interesting personality in the lot and oftentimes these personas are typified in board strokes, like, for example, the SEAL Team member that can’t wait to get home to his pregnant wife.   Hmmm…I wonder if he’ll make it through the film unscathed…? 

Ultimately, I would have found ACT OF VALOR more endurable and entertaining if it just became more of an unpretentious love ballad to 1980’s action film cheese.  Alas, this film takes itself with the solemnity of a funeral, which indirectly makes it come off as unintentionally amusing at incorrect times.  There’s no doubt that Navy SEALs are real red blooded heroes that command and deserve our respect; I guess there’s nothing inherently wrong, per se, with a film acting as a recruitment aid to young viewers who want to be inspired and follow in their footsteps.  Yet, ACT OF VALOR is so utterly lacking in thematic, story, character, and geopolitical depth and complexity that it becomes dramatically hollow.  That, and the way it obsesses over sensationalizing the SEALs’ treacherous lifestyle and dangerous missions with ostentatious video game pyrotechnics kind of does a disservice to what they actually do in reality.  Advertising ACT OF VALOR as the upper echelon of movie realism and then getting what I saw thrown up at the screen is a lamentable bit of bait-and-switch. 

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