Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas (@peteramartin)

A run-of-the-mill, first-person shooter cloaked in the trappings of docu-drama, Act of Valor is a curious hybrid, a transparent military recruitment device that puts most of its emphasis on the action and very little on the men and women who serve.

A considerable effort is made to portray Navy SEALs as accurately (and heroically) as possible. Directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh say they were approached by the U.S. Navy four years ago about participating in the project, and felt honored to be given the opportunity to create a tribute to the honorable service undertaken by patriotic men and women. They felt that only Navy SEALs could do a credible job of playing Navy SEALs in action, and decided to include the real-life families of the active duty SEALs in selected scenes for the purposes of creating the most authentic emotional experience possible.

But, for all that, Act of Valor is not a documentary. It claims, instead, to be "inspired" by actual acts of valor, without specifically stating that the storyline, crafted by screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300), is necessarily based on real life.

That allows for the villain to hail from the Ukraine and for his followers to be natives of the Philippines. Again, a curious hybrid, this time of nationalities, without more than a cursory attempt to explain the connection, other than to suggest that the U.S. Navy did not want to risk naming any specific Middle Eastern countries as part of a terrorist plot.

As the Navy SEAL team trots around the globe, from Costa Rica to Somalia to Mexico, any diplomatic negotiations involved take place off-screen. The point of view remains, relentlessly, with the SEAL team, yet other than the occasional wisecrack, and reminder that the wife of one of the team members is pregnant, precious little time is spent getting to know the men as individuals.

They are there to serve, not to talk, evidently, and so we the audience must take it on faith that they are uniformly good, self-sacrificing, selfless people who are extremely well-trained. They never hesitate, they always shoot to kill, they never injure civilians, they never question orders, they rarely think about their loved ones back home: they are always incredibly focused on the job at hand.

And that job is killing foreign nationals in the defense of America.

While some might object to that blunt characterization of their mission, the Navy SEALs in the film are reduced to being players in a video game. They do what they're told, they 'take out targets' rather than 'kill before being killed,' they 'secure the asset' instead of 'rescuing a hostage.'

The first-person shooter perspective, aided and abetted by the extensive use of helmet-cam footage and the quick-cutting editing philosophy that has become so common in action movies, all serve to declare that Act of Valor is a blunt work of fictional promotion, a two-hour commercial for the U.S. Navy. As a result, simple conclusions are encouraged.

To further that viewpoint, the decision to cast active-duty Navy SEALS in the lead roles may have lent the action sequences -- complete with live-fire ammunition to 'heighten the realism' -- unprecedented veracity, but their inexperience as actors makes the dramatic scenes flat and unconvincing, especially in comparison to the professionalism embodied by Roselyn Sanchez and Alex Veadov. Sanchez has a smaller role as a CIA agent who is brutally tortured, with Veadov playing a major role as a Ukrainian smuggler. They deliver their lines with crisp efficiency, which stands in contrast to the earnest line-reading by the soldiers.

Shane Hurlbut is an experienced director of photography (Into the Blue, Terminator Salvation), so it appears that the decision to shoot the action in a way that looks more like video than film was a deliberate one. Thus, Act of Valor resembles a behind-the-scenes feature for most of its running time. Directors McCoy and Waugh have considerable experience in the industry, as well as a number of commercials and promotional films under their belts, yet they've produced an anonymous and generic product, one that may please the military in general and Navy SEALs specifically, without engaging a wider audience.

As an action movie, Act of Valor is a strictly average affair, plodding through its storyline and ignoring characterizations in favor of spending time on the sequences with shooting and killing, which are themselves shot without distinction. In that, it has much in common with traditional fictional features. As part of a promotional campaign for the U.S. Navy, however, it's much more fascinating, and raises more questions than it answers.

Act of Valor opens today wide across the U.S.

Act of Valor

  • Mike McCoy
  • Scott Waugh
  • Kurt Johnstad
  • Rorke Denver
  • Dave
  • Sonny
  • Weimy
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Mike McCoyScott WaughKurt JohnstadRorke DenverDaveSonnyWeimyActionAdventureDrama

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