Friday, March 2, 2012

A Valorous Attempt

At the beginning of Act of Valor, the military-based action film directed by Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, there is a scene in which the main villain, played by Jason Cottle, uses an ice cream truck as a bomb to kill an ambassador tough on international terrorism. Of course, this also has the side effect of killing dozens of small children, and as the explosion settles down, the camera lingers just long enough for us to glimpse a small child emerging in terror from the site of the bombing just before the film cuts to the next scene. In that brief moment, we are made aware of how horrific these types events truly are, as opposed to the sterile information parsed to us when we read about them on page seven of our local newspapers. These events may occur in cities across the globe we weren't aware even existed, and yet so many of us are barely aware of them. It's an incredibly emotional moment, and one expertly shot to boot. It is also the very last time we feel anything close to that level of shock for the entire length of this mediocre film.

Yup, he's a bad dude.
Boasting a fictional story that casts active duty Navy SEALs, Act of Valor entices the audience with real military tactics, procedures and communication. It's designed to provide the most accurate portrayal of military servicemen in a major motion picture. So why does the whole thing feel like your most typical Hollywood retread, right down to a cliched script, hammy dialogue and obvious twists? That would be thanks to screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, whose only real experience in writing films came from working alongside the rapidly declining Zack Snyder on the script for 300. It seems odd that such a high-profile film was saddled with such an inexperienced screenwriter, but perhaps the filmmakers wanted to see if true SEALs could be victorious in what seasoned actors would have had no chance to overcome.

Pray you never see this mug in the heat of combat
The world is in trouble. When CIA operative Morales (Roselyn Sanchez) is kidnapped by a ruthless smuggler (Alex Veadov) for spying on him, the US Military's elite SEALs are called in to provide a rescue. Morales had been searching for a link between the smuggler Christo and Middle Eastern terrorist Abu Shabal (Cottle), and as the SEALs dig deep into the investigation, they find themselves fighting to prevent a potential attack on US soil. This takes them all over the world as they try to catch up with a terror plot so heinous it threatens to derail the US economy and kill hundreds of innocents in the process.

Just preventing World War III. No big deal.

Yup, that's the plot. It's really sad when you think about how much potential this film could have had, and THIS was the best story they could come up with. There is one ingredient in which the film hits perfectly, and that is execution of the numerous action scenes we're shown over the film's 101 minute run time. Whether it's deep in the jungle or on crowded urban terrain, the action is pulse-pounding and relentless when it is put up on the screen. The pacing is exciting, and while neither director has any real experience making action films, they show a natural proclivity towards the genre. Of course, their inexperience means that a lot of the camera shots are extremely close to what's happening, obscuring all but the most obvious details of the battle. The film also experiments with head-mounted cameras to provide a "first person" viewpoint in some scenes. While this was an interesting concept (if not really original), the few times it does this are rarely effective, and while the potential is there going forward, it's not a camera trick you'll be likely to see in any good movies in the near future.

They're all this full of personality, I swear.
Another major issue with the film is the quality of acting, which ranges from merely okay to "Oh, my God." Even seasoned actors have difficulty with the material, as Sanchez, Cottle and Gonzalo Menendez deliver their rote dialogue with all the enthusiasm of blue collar workers just trying to make it to their next paychecks. But even their lazy facades stand leaps and bounds above the best that the unnamed and uncredited Navy SEALs are able to muster, to the point where I think the reason the soldiers' names are omitted from the credits has less to do with national security and more with that they don't have to put this film on their career resumes. Delivering dialogue so dry it would be at home in the Sahara, this collection of bad-asses deliver when it comes to the action, but fall far short when anything approaching emotion or character building is called forth. Worse, there is little to differentiate these men from one another outside the heat of battle. One is an expectant father; another already has a large family. There's one black guy, ANOTHER black guy with a gold tooth, and a silent, grizzled sniper. Then, in the finest tradition of Gilligan's Island, there's "all the rest", who have nothing to offer whatsoever. This lack of individuality only obfuscates the confusing action sequences, which we already had enough trouble following. Whether it was hack screenwriting or the filmmakers simply feeling that their actors couldn't handle complicated characters doesn't matter, as we never feel anything for these men before, during, or after their contributions to this title are complete.

Not quite more explosions than a Michael Bay flick, but it's close!
And that's Act of Valor's greatest failing: it's a film glorifying elite soldiers while not allowing us to get anything close to an understanding of how or why they tick. The SEALs have made it clear that they see this film as an opportunity to recruit more young men into their honored ranks, and knowing that brings to my mind the video game America's Army. The free game was developed with US taxpayer money and was created to entice and recruit young teens into the US Army. It works, but as with video games, movies have a long history of glorifying life in the military, painting soldiers as larger-than-life heroes fighting for our freedoms. Just looking in recent history, take films like last year's Battle: Los Angeles and 2001's Black Hawk Down and you can see how pro-American these films already are. As nice an idea as Act of Valor is, the same thing could have been accomplished with a talented Hollywood cast, and maybe a retired SEAL or two to act as an advisor to the filmmakers. As it is, there's very little to distance this title from typical Hollywood fare anyway, so why bother? Don't take this as a sign that I didn't ENJOY Act of Valor at all, as the action was enough to give it a passing grade, if just barely. It's the #9 film of 2012, but if McCoy and Waugh had focused less on making this the most REALISTIC film they could and instead focused on making it GREAT, they might have actually created something of serious merit. As it is, 2013 will see this film all but forgotten.

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