A mechanically efficient yet soulless dramatization of the U.S. Navy SEALs in action, “Act of Valor” ultimately misses its target: The hearts and minds of American audiences. Coming on the heels of perhaps the SEALs’ most memorable mission — the raid of Osama bin Laden’s compound and his assassination — this filmic celebration of the SEALs’ derring-do, in a marathon effort spanning two continents and four targets, nevertheless feels as overdone as it is technically precise. Ramrod action will secure muscular opening weekend B.O., but Heartland auds and genre buffs may be the only ones tempted to stay the course.
Kurt Johnstad’s script derives from several actual SEALs operations, but rather than serving up the action more authentically as separate ops, the pic ties them together with a global terror plot that pushes this would-be docudrama closer to the territory occupied by TV’s “24.” What’s gained in conventional narrative build-up is lost in authenticity in a film that was conceived as a chance to depict real SEALs in their element.
Bookended by a letter written and narrated by one of the SEALs (Dave, going only by his first name, as everyone in the unit does), the pic begins Stateside at the San Diego home base of the stalwart unit, led by Lt. Rorke, with Dave as his second-in-command, leading a team comprised of Sonny, Weimy, Ray, Ajay, Mikey and ace interrogator Van O — all played by non-pros who bring real service experience but limited acting ability to their roles. Enjoying a day of surfing and a night on the beach with their families, the guys are super-relaxed for men about to go on a tough mission, with Dave stiffly joking about Rorke and his wife (Ailsa Marshall) expecting a baby.
Coinciding with a terror attack on an American school and the U.S. ambassador in the Philippines, CIA agent Morales (Rosalyn Sanchez) is abducted in Costa Rica during her pursuit of international smuggling kingpin Christo (Alex Veadov). Rorke’s unit is given their marching orders, and after an exhilarating parachute jump into the jungle, “extraction” is the name of the game. Though the sequence contains momentary thrills, it’s also shot much like a vidgame, which tends to sap deeper emotional involvement.
The successful mission delivers some bad news: Morales’ cell phone has data linking Christo with Chechen terrorist Abu Shabal (Jason Cottle), suggesting an imminent Stateside terror attack. Veadov’s and Cottle’s over-the-top characterizations trigger flashbacks to scenarios hatched by the multinational cadres of baddies favored by “24,” only with Kiefer Sutherland’s galvanizing Jack Bauer missing from the picture.
The SEALs now must spread out, with a pair headed on an amphibious trek to Somalia to spy on Shabal’s planes loaded, mysteriously, with Filipino men and women, while Van O, with touches of dark wit and menace, interrogates a slimy Christo as the baddie tries to flee to a safe haven in the South Pacific. As seemingly theatrical as the scene is — even echoing hints of chatty, Tarantino-style confrontations — it’s also probably the closest to docu realism; Van O is the only SEAL in the cast who puts over the feeling that this is actually how he goes about his business.
The film finally narrows to a pursuit of Shabal in Mexico, where he’s intending to send his Filipino allies, armed with exceptionally potent suicide bombs, through cross-border tunnels used by Mexican drug cartels. Initial fears that the script will devolve into a political attack on Mexico are averted with the custom caveat that this is a jointly approved U.S.-Mexico operation). The ensuing sequence is skillfully shot slam-bang stuff, with sufficiently cool explosions — and one friendly casualty — that brings the pic full circle.
While the idea to have the SEALs play themselves is a bold one, it is undone by the fact that all but Van O don’t have the acting chops to deliver the material. More problematically, the SEALs seldom emerge as distinct individuals, putting the emphasis on the team above the sort of clear-cut characters auds expect from gung-ho action pics.
Making their first feature outing, producer-directors Scott Waugh and Mouse McCoy command a strong technical team, with d.p. Shane Hurlbut sitting shotgun, and a sound team flexing tremendous audio guns (particularly Jeffery J. Haboush, Larry Benjamin and Eric Justen manning the re-recording mix). Waugh and co-editor Michael Tronick adeptly weave a vast number of camera angles and p.o.v.’s together for a sure, steady flow.