This isn’t a film about right and wrong; good and bad. At least not in real-world terms.
You may well have been opposed to many, or all, of the so-called ‘wars’ that have been undertaken by the United States – promoting themselves as the world police to root out ‘the enemies of the free world’ – over the last half a Century. From Vietnam to Korea; Iraq to Afghanistan, the political motivations behind many of these offensive actions have been questionable at best.
There’s one thing that we shouldn’t question, though, and that’s the courage of the men who fight these battles.
Blame the politicians, the press; blame religion, or at least interpretation thereof. But don’t blame the men (and women) who put their lives on the line day in and day out while we all go about our jobs blissfully unaware of what it actually takes to be a man who would take a bullet for someone; who would throw himself on a grenade to save his teammates; and who doesn’t always know whether he might be around to see tomorrow.
Act of Valour isn’t about politics – the right and wrong of whether or not these battles should be fought – and it may well be little more than the most expensive recruitment video ever commissioned, but it is still a staggeringly authentic military actioner which pays a fitting tribute to the men who fight these battles.
The film follows Navy SEAL Team Seven, deployed to Costa Rica to recover a kidnapped CIA agent who is being tortured to give up what she knows about a terrorist cell. They soon see a far bigger picture: two Chechan terrorist leaders are planning a grand-scale attack on several major cities in the United States using ceramic suicide bomb vests specially designed not to be picked up by metal detectors. Mounting multiple strikes across the globe, from Mexico to Somalia, the SEALs have to work against the clock to neutralize the threat before it reaches US shores.
This production emanated from a video project conducted for the US Navy by newcomer directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh; coming up with the not wholly original idea of doing a movie about Navy SEALs, the directors originally envisioned a straight military action vehicle with a named cast, where the combat scenes were directly inspired by – and overseen by – real-life SEALs. But when the filmmakers realised that it was going to be very difficult to craft an accurate film using actors, they decided instead to cast real SEALs in the roles.
Certainly the presence of serving Navy SEALs in the film is the defining element about it; the hook by which it has been promoted, but it has also opened up the project to all kinds of criticisms.
There is no denying that these SEALs can’t act. The dialogue is stilted; their lines are clumsily delivered; they are wooden in the extreme; and their reactions are far from anything even approaching cinematically appropriate – but perhaps that’s the point. These aren’t actors. They are just normal, average (at least in a Hollywood sense) human beings, who don’t know how to perform for the camera; for an audience. What did you expect from them?
The closest that we get to decent dialogue actually comes during the intelligence briefings, where they get their orders and ask questions about the mission that they will be undertaking. I can’t think of a single movie which has had dialogue as authentic as this – the questions asked; the specifics given – filmmakers have had military consultants working with them for decades and yet, somehow, they’ve never come this close to the real thing. Still, these soldiers are not known for their words – however simple the lines; however warm the dialogue is supposed to be, the only camaraderie between this group is implied from their combat work together, not from their words. These guys will never be actors.
What they do know how to do, however, is assault an enemy encampment in almost any conditions: from land, sea or air; in the desert, in the jungle or even out in the middle of the ocean. They move as one, almost innately knowing what each other will do in any given environment; breaching, clearing and organically shifting like a centipede from room to room, tree to tree, shack to shack – even water is no obstactle, they just rise and fall smoothly in unison like a school of dolphins, steadily and silently making their way across rivers until they are upon their targets!
In combat they have been trained to the highest degree, and so their reactions and responses are unlike any you would expect from an actor – even an actor who has undergone a crash course in weapons handling and tactics – and this can be quite a shock to watch. Slick, fluid movements, practised a thousand times under battle conditions make the action scenes stunningly realistic. Jaw-droppingly so.
It’s normally the simplest of movements, and yet they’re things we’ve never seen before. The half-roll-and-shoot that the SEAL does when returning fire out of the back of a truck; the angled tilt-and-fire from behind a tree; the sliding knee movement to get into a shooting position behind a column (which you can see from the trailer) – I can see why the filmmakers chose to cast real SEALs in the roles: actors couldn’t have pulled this off.
The globetrotting element is also overwhelming. We criticise Quantum of Solace for (amongst other things) it’s country-hopping freneticism, but these guys do it for a living – jumping from country to country, continent to continent, just to get to their targets, wherever they may be.
Story-wise there’s nothing really new here; nothing we haven’t seen before a dozen times. Non-descript terrorists want to blow people up just because, well, they’re terrorists. And evil. Etc. Etc. It doesn’t really need an explanation, if you want a political movie which offers up both sides of the coin then you’ll have to look elsewhere, Act of Valour has about as much subtlety as Arnie’s Commando, and should be treated in much the same way: as far as this movie’s concerned it’s just heroes and villains; good guys and bad guys; black and white – and why not? Sure it’s patriotic; jingoistic, but so was Top Gun, so was Navy SEALs. Act of Valour isn’t trying to pass itself off as a commentary on the morality of invading or attacking other countries – that would be Team America, only played straight – it’s just trying to give us a closer, more accurate, more realistic look at the kind of men who go into battle, and just what they are capable of; just what they do for their country; for us.
I can see why, despite the immense barrage of criticism that it has attracted from the critics, Act of Valour has gone on to be reasonably successful at the cinemas. It’s far from a masterpiece, but if you go into it expecting excellent military action and nothing else, then you won't be disappointed. It's those who hoped for more that are crying out about everything wrong with it. And, understandably so, because there is plenty wrong. The opening narration is painfully clichéd; the first few scenes are disjointed and unrefined, almost putting you off before things have even really gotten started, but once we get to see the SEALs in action it’s like a different movie entirely. Unfortunately there are plenty of pauses for dialogue, and the hackneyed terrorist story running throughout takes up far too much time with unnecessary scenes that attempt to build character but instead largely invoke tedium. The first act assault is arguably the peak of the movie, and when the SEALs split to go on their separate missions, even the action becomes marginally diluted, with only a couple of clever ideas (first person fading in and out whilst wounded, the aforementioned knee slide) thrown in to make the final confrontation stand out as more than just average.
Indeed there are huge parallels between this and playing a videogame – from the HUD graphics used for some of the shots, to the FPS perspective and gun-cam footage – although people often forget that there are things you can do in a videogame which you seldom see in a movie (or at least seldom see in a movie that isn’t entirely shot against a green-screen). Act of Valour shows real soldiers doing real moves in realistic combat situations with little need for CG effects. Perhaps we've become spoilt for choice when it comes to CG actioners, desensitised to what it takes to actually pull off some of these moves in real life, but these guys can do it for real. Unfortunately, if you're prepared to accept CG, and are more interested in story, then this is still not the military movie for you.
Indeed, at the end of the day, this is a fairly specialist film, in that it’s only going to be enjoyed by those who are able to distance themselves from the politics of it all, and just watch this as if it were any other generic fictional military actioner with one-dimensional terrorist villains and damsels in distress waiting to be saved. And, even beyond that; even as a simple military actioner, you're still going to have to be pretty forgiving: the only thing that distinguishes this film from the straight-to-DVD pile is the fact that it features real-life elite soldiers.
If you’re going to talk military movies – from Black Hawk Down all the way to Tears of the Sun – there are plenty of better films out there, in terms of politics, story, acting, dialogue and, quite honestly, sheer action entertainment. Even the relatively recent French-military-funded Special Forces managed to strike a better balance between accurate tactics, solid story plotting, decent acting and realistic action. Act of Valour fails resoundingly on almost all counts. And though it may have some staggeringly authentic military moves in it, it’s not really a great movie by any definition of the word. It’s probably not even a great action movie. Indeed, if you want a more cinematically crafted movie about SEALs then you may have to wait for Kathryn "Hurt Locker" Bigelow's upcoming take on the hunt for Bin Laden. Act of Valour just provides the guns and ammo, and the fingers on the triggers. Nothing more.
You’re not going to come out of the movie remembering the characters who you’ve gotten to know over the last 100 minutes because a) they’re not in the least bit interesting and b) they can’t act worth a damn. You’re not going to come out of this movie pondering the morality of war. But you’re also not going to come out of the movie wanting to sign up for military service. You’ll probably want to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II with a bunch of your mates. Or watch Rambo III for the fifteenth time. And, if you’re lucky, you might feel a tiny twinge of gratitude that, despite what we have seen performed by actors and stuntmen in hundreds of movies before, there are people out there in real life who can do this kind of thing for real, and probably do it better than we ever imagined. And they don’t do it for money. And they don’t do it for oil. They do it because it’s their job. Beyond the dull acting, the clumsy dialogue and the trite storyline, and beyond the jaw-dropping action, that’s what we should truly be in awe of.
Act of Valour isn’t about the politics – whether or not these battles should be fought – and it may well be little more than the most expensive US Navy training video ever commissioned, but it is still a staggeringly authentic military actioner which pays tribute to the brave soldiers who fight these battles. It does have an undeniably clichéd script, and it does take a blunt force trauma approach to the complexities of war, but, in amidst the hackneyed plot and painfully clumsy dialogue, there are some spectacular action sequences that show you just what real Navy SEALs are capable of. Whether or not it will appeal to everybody; whether or not it’s even a good movie, there’s no denying the sheer awe that we should have for these warriors. It's just a shame they didn't get a slightly better movie to show off their skills in.
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