What makes Act of Valor different is that instead of the usual running actors through a mini-boot camp to get them into a semblance of looking and acting like soldiers, the filmmakers have used actual Navy SEALs to portray a fictional story and the result plays out like a fusion of Tom Clancy novels and the Call of Duty video games. Frequently slick and exciting, but somewhat awkward dramatically, Act of Valor has to be graded on a slight curve.
After a terrorist bombing in the Philippines kills the U.S. Ambassador, a female CIA operative in Costa Rica is abducted by a Chechnyan drug and weapons runner's outfit and brutally tortured in the jungle. The SEALs rescue her in the film's best action sequence and uncover evidence of a much larger, scarier plot to infiltrate jihadists with new undetectable suicide vests through drug smuggling tunnels on the Mexican border. As the plot grows, the SEALs trot the globe to hunt down the bad guys and save America.
The action scenes are the best as the SEALs precisely execute their maneuvers while coping with sometimes incredible odds. While I don't doubt the mad skillz of SEALs, the bad guy body counts and sheer percentage of head shots is more videogame than anything. The Call of Duty parallels continue with some nifty first-person views where we see the view through the holo sights and they use graphics to mark the transitions from place to place. If you've played the games, you'll recognize the style.
Where the movie suffers is in asking the SEALs to act in service of some of the hoariest tropes. The lieutenant looks like Peyton Manning and acts about as well as Manning does in commercials. The Charlie Sheen spoof of Top Gun, Hot Shots, made fun of Goose's doomed fate with a character named "Dead Meat" and it's unfortunate that we are able to predict immediately who is going to die. It's not spoiling when if you've seen one movie about a soldier with a baby on the way back home, you can tell what's going to happen. They even have a bit referring to foreshadowing which is too meta for the material.
This is where Act of Valor frustrated me: On one hand, the action is visceral and thrilling - I told the girl taking comments afterward that it was more exciting than Chicago being destroyed in the last Transformers movie - and allowing for some Hollywoodization, it's interesting to see the cool efficiency of the SEALs. (Unlike another Charlie Sheen movie.) The story is Clancyesque, but there are some intriguing aspects to the relationship between the bad guys as childhood friends grow radically apart. That said, the movie rides a wobbly line between pseudo-documentary grit and slick popcorn audience-pleasing and somewhat mawkish emotion in spots. Much of the cinematography is beautiful - really lovely and worthy of a Bay film - and the direction and editing is clear, but there were places that I wished a more traditional storytelling hand was steering things.
One thing that may've slanted my perceptions was at the screening there was a short introductory clip from the directors discussing the movie and how a few bits were done. I love behind-the-scenes stuff on DVDs, but seeing it before the movie made me think throughout about how what I was seeing was made and wondering what was really realistic and what was pumped up for entertainment. There were also no end credits or music; the film just ends. The film may undergo some final tweaks in the 2-1/2 months before it releases, but it looks finished to me.
The boosters of Act of Valor are pushing the great respect our brave fighters are shown. As I said, a decade of bashing has made it long overdue for some positive portrayals of the warriors who keep film critics like me safe to watch movies, but that doesn't mean the film doesn't have some rough edges. I suspect the liberal media will bash it as jingoism and the conservative media will hail it as the Greatest. Movie. Ever. If you want to make a statement of support for movies that don't hate the troops, then by all means hit a matinee and tell Hollyweird what you're willing to shell out your hard-earned cash for, not that they care. If you're less motivated to activism, it's worth watching later.
Score: 7/10. Rent it.