The U.S. military and Hollywood have shared a relationship since the earliest days of film, and whether the goal is recruitment or selling war bonds, it has often been lucrative. Occasionally, this cooperation includes casting real soldiers in the film, like Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy in 1955’s film adaptation of his autobiography, To Hell and Back.
Act of Valor attempts something similar by casting anonymous Navy Seals in the lead roles, who had previously served as military advisors on directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh’s video for the U.S. Navy’s Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen (the “Boat Guys” who transport and provide support for Seals). Much like what Stanley Kubrick discovered in the casting of real-life Marine Drill Sergeant R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, the Bandito Brothers realized that there’s no acting substitute for what these guys do.
And — for the most part — they’re right. In your average war movie, actors can get by on the standard one week of boot camp to portray regular active duty servicemen (see: Saving Private Ryan). But the Navy Seals are special forces, and previous attempts to fill their roles with Martin Sheen’s kids turned into one of Clerk‘s most enduing jokes.
Once the action starts, Act of Valor is one hell of an experience. Watching what these warriors do for a living gives the viewer a better appreciation of the exploits of America’s combat sweethearts, Seal Team Six — something I wasn’t sure was even possible. It also makes you feel a little bad for Osama Bin Laden and Somali pirates … buuuut not that much.
Unfortunately, McCoy and Waugh can’t seem to leave well-enough alone in the combat scenes and repeatedly switch to first person shooter camera shots, turning what were incredibly cogent battles into part-U.S. Navy recruiting (“You are the Seal!”) and part-advertisement for Tom Clancy’s latest Rainbow Six game (who wrote the book that the movie was titled after). Simply put: if it didn’t work in Doom, which was actually about an FPS, why would any filmmaker resort to it in a “serious” movie?
Although the Seal actors excel in their combat roles, casting two of them in the lead roles, LT and Chief, makes for some of the worst scenes of the movie: the states-side bookends. We meet LT and Chief over breakfast at a diner, and the big reveal that LT’s about to have his first kid (Spoiler Alert: death sentence) works about as well as a used car lot’s ad for trading in your Mustang for a mini-van. And they’re so whitebread that the Chief’s narration sounds like he has a mouthful of enriched white flour.
It doesn’t help that the two are visually indistinguishable, which the film tries to rectify by giving LT a shitty haircut before the combat scenes — when they’ll be nigh-identical — and acknowledges it by having another team member make fun of him for it. The haircut is for naught, because once they exit the plane, they wear hats for the rest of the film. This leads me to wonder why they needed Seals to perform the states-side scenes at all. Once in combat make-up and headgear, they are completely unrecognizable from the opening.
But, not all of the Seals’ acting performances are bad. Senior, the team’s leader holds his own as he interrogates one of the film’s two Big Bads,
a Russian? Ukranian? (Eh, do global politics really matter in a movie about international affairs?) an arms-smuggler supporting terrorists and cartels played by character actor Alex Veadov.
Veadov’s Christo is engaging and charismatic, but his history of appearances in video games — including Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2 — doesn’t help dispel Act of Valor‘s overall video game movie vibe. The film’s other villain, a Croatian Muslim terrorist running operations out of the Philippines, menaces well enough, whether berating Christo or congratulating his recruits for blowing themselves up.
All of these elements, combined with heads-up display graphics and the voice actor who does the military radio voice in every video game, turns all of these performances into cutscenes, regardless of performer competency. Throw in the script by 300 writer, Kurt Johnstad, and the hardware provided by the U.S. military, and what you’ve got is pure propaganda. In fact, the movie so closely resembles Navy recruitment ads that I expected to see the words “A Force for Good” trailing after a submarine as it picks up two Seals.
Ultimately, Act of Valor aims to be a loving tribute to our warriors, but whether due to the filmmakers’ ineptness or overwriting input from the Department of the Navy, it ends up looking as tawdry of a recruitment tool as the America’s Army games. It happens to be one of the greatest depictions of Special Ops warfare on screen, but undermines all of that with every opportunity. And the worst part? It turns actual goddamn heroes into a casting gimmick.