I debated how to go about writing this review for a few days. Not that this would be a particularly hard review to write - I'm perfectly clear on my feelings for the movie. But I also understand that there's no way that a review for a movie about real Navy SEALS doing real Navy SEAL shit wouldn't get political somehow. So, here goes.
If there ever was a movie called INGLOURIOUS INFIDELS, made by the Al-Queda equivalent of Quentin Tarantino, ACT OF VALOR would be the movie that plays at the theater in the end as the suicide bombers blow up the evil Zionist/American Illuminati rulers of the world. It's full of propaganda, terrible acting, mostly badly shot action scenes, and while there are interesting moments, when the film does shine a light onto an aspect of the military that isn't well known, for the most part, it's a slog. It's full of melodrama where there didn't need to be, and too much of the action is shot through the same shakycam lens that's plagued action movies for years now.
If you scan reviews for ACT OF VALOR, the most common thing that will likely come up is that it's shot very much in the style of first-person shooter games like BATTLEFIELD 3 or the CALL OF DUTY games. It's done like that so often, that during the dialogue scenes where the "plot" is being established, I was looking for the A button. There is a plot, by the way - two old childhood Russian friends, one Jewish, and one radical Muslim, decide to attack America, and the Navy SEALS have to stop their nefarious plot before it reaches our borders. It's a movie that manages to simplify the post-911 world, the immigration debate, and our foreign policy in such a way - sometimes in the same scene! - that anyone with a little bit of current knowledge of world events would find laughable.
Look, I think there's an interesting movie to be made about the SEAL team. In a world of blunt instruments, Navy SEALs are the scalpel. The movie really only came alive for me when the SEALs were plotting out their missions, and the movie takes diligence in explaining to the audience what the plan is, so when the action starts you have some idea of what the SEALs are doing, regardless of the seizure-cam. That is when the movie becomes fascinating, and the way the SEALs use technology with good old-fashioned tactical sense is interesting to watch.
The problem is that someone also asked these guys to act. And they're terrible at it - when the SEALs aren't being debriefed on their mission or carrying it out, we get awkward performances that would make any high school drama teacher wince. Now, I'd never ask Michael Biehn or Charlie Sheen to rescue a hostage or take out Bin Laden, so I might be being a little unfair here, but I think it was a huge mistake to tack on these intimate personal stories of these soldiers' lives when they aren't deployed on a mission. All the wives are completely understanding of their husbands' duties, and when they aren't fighting, the men relax with beers at the beach, families in tow. It's all clichéd stuff, of little value. I understand the movie is trying to paint a kinder, gentler picture of these heroes who fight for our country. But here's the thing - let's be realistic, I know exactly what these guys do for a living. Their job is to get into the places that regular soldiers can't, and do those things that we probably would rather not know about. That's what they do. Is it heroic? That's not a good word to use. I don't call a scalpel heroic - it does what it's supposed to do. It's how that scalpel is used that makes the difference. I respect what Navy SEALs do immensely, but the propaganda about how these men are our heroes is driven home so forcefully and without any subtlety to it that it actually does them and what they do a disservice. Instead, they are the last line of defense in a world gone completely insane, with terrorists around every corner. It's a world Rick Santorum knows a lot about. All that's missing is the Satanic pre-natal care.
When the camera isn't jumping around or looking down the barrel of a weapon, the action actually gets a little interesting. In many of the action sequences, the SEALs use live fire - I'm not sure how that worked when it came time to shoot people, but in one sequence when an armored riverboat unloads onto some bad guys you can tell the difference between the real thing and Hollywood show. The movie makes an effort to show the skills of these men, who can go anywhere in the world in a few hours notice, seemingly effortlessly. But too many times, the filmmaking gets in the way. I liked the Neveldine/Taylor movies of CRANK and CRANK 2, but these directors (Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh) don't treat that style of directing like the gimmick it is and shoot the entire movie like they're embedded. What could have been interesting visually turns into wannabe-BOURNE style filmmaking that takes the audience out of what they're watching.
And then, there's the propaganda. Oh, the propaganda, which makes ACT OF VALOR almost completely insufferable. Here's the tough part of reviewing this - any negativity on the message of the movie is always going to be taken badly by conservative filmgoers who may admire the movie for that aspect. Look, I'm a liberal, but I'm a strong believer of the Bill of Rights, and that includes the Second Amendment. I don't own a gun, and really don't have any interest in doing so, but unlike a lot of liberals I completely believe in the right for all Americans to own guns. But ACT OF VALOR has little tolerance for people like me. You're either with them or against them. The film obviously comes from a conservative viewpoint, and while I don't have a problem with that as a film reviewer - it's all in the execution - it shares its themes in such a clumsy, unsubtle way that I half-expected Glenn Beck to chart out the film on his chalkboard. I would have rather the movie just show these guys doing what they do, without all the hoopla and jargon. BLACK HAWK DOWN is an example of a movie that shows men in combat without having to resort to cheap histrionics and plays for your emotion. This movie wants to be BLACK HAWK DOWN so badly, but the filmmakers don't have a tenth of the skill of Ridley Scott.
The problem I have with this movie - especially in the almost sublimely ridiculous ending, where as we watch a mom feed a little baby in his high chair we hear a voiceover that practically tells the kid, "What the fuck are you doing? Get out of that chair and fucking KILL THINGS UNTIL YOU DIE!" - is that it almost fetishizes dying for your country. Hell, there's no almost about it - it completely fetishizes it. The movie didn't need all that. I don't need to know where a scalpel comes from to know that you can cut deeply with one. There's an interesting movie inside the ridiculous pomposity of ACT OF VALOR, but if you extract it, it's all of 20 minutes. Those 20 minutes are surrounded by incompetent filmmaking, bad acting, and propaganda so thick and syrupy it should be on an IHOP menu. Some people will embrace this movie completely, and good for them. I'm glad they enjoyed it. For me, it was a chore, and until Kathryn Bigelow's movie about SEAL Team Six's killing of Bin Laden opens, the definitive SEAL movie will be Lewis Teague's magnum opus.