Movie Review: Act of Valor

Act of Valor is coming out in ten days. Your intrepid TTAG writers got to see the whole enchilada at SHOT Show earlier this year. I thought you might be interested to hear what we thought about the movie before you decide if you want to spend your hard earned cash on some tickets. [Warning! There may be a spoiler or two embedded within the text.] I’m going to chunk this article into four categories, each of which I’ll examine and use as the criteria to rate the movie: production values, storyline, acting and visual effects . . .

First up: production values. In this case doesn’t mean money spent on screen or quality or special effect. I’m talking about the fact that every single member of the cast that appears in uniform is active duty U.S. military, and the SEAL team are actually SEALs.

When we went to the screening of the movie, one of the directors talked to us for a bit before the movie started. I got the distinct impression that everyone involved with Act of Valor poured their heart and soul into making a film that would accurately portray what our men and women in uniform go through to keep us safe—albeit with a little bit of Hollywood sparkle thrown in for good measure. The soldiers didn’t look like supermodels; they looked like soldiers. Well-lit soldiers with a superb sense of timing, but soldiers nonetheless.

Act of Valor’s Hollywood sparkle is much more subtle than in, say, Charlie Sheen’s 1990 blockbuster Navy Seals. The pizzaz added to the experience and made the film much more enjoyable without detracting from the realism. I didn’t have to suspend my disbelief, much. At no point did the Hollywood touch made me laugh out loud at faked action or strategery.

That said, the storyline was terrible. I get that the action sequences were pulled from real SEAL missions and the storyline was thrown together to string one sequence into the next, but the number of cliché plot devices and tropes that were thrown in really had me worrying about the perils of patriotic plagiarism.

It was as if Act of Valor’s producer took the most overused situations from every war movie made since the end of World War One, mixed them all together and hoped that they would pluck the heartstrings of the viewers. Strike the “as if.” It was.

Husband leaving pregnant wife to defend his country? Check. Villain with a scar on his face? Check. Damsel in distress? Check. Continuing the mission despite mortal wounds? Check and check. All it was missing was a man strapped to a slab with a giant laser threatening to cut off his meaty bits.

In terms of acting, this can really be split into two sub-categories: acting with plot related dialogue and acting under fire.

When the SEALs are just standing around and talking to advance what little plot line there is you can tell that being the tree in their kindergarten play was probably the closest they had previously come to an acting career. Which is fine, seeing as they’re probably the most awesome men ever to walk the battlefield, but on the big screen it can make some of the dialogue seem forced and unnatural.

Having grown up with movies like The Longest Day I’m used to my soldiers being a little more eloquent (Duke-esque, even), but you can tell that these guys are out of their element and even perhaps a tad uncomfortable.

But when the guns come out, everything changes.

The second these guys pick up a firearm you can see a massive spike in the level of intensity they are putting into their job. Just looking at their eyes you get the feeling like they’re taking this as an opportunity not just to run around with guns but to train as well, putting their skills to work as if it were the real thing. The U.S. Navy even kept the original footage for use in training. This is something we’ve never seen in this kind of quality on film before, and quite frankly it was amazing.

That level of intensity they show might have something to do with the fact that they used live ammunition for much of the production.

Yes, you heard me. Live ammo.

When I saw that scene with the SUV being blown to bits by minigun fire in the movie I thought to myself “that can’t POSSIBLY be real.” The bullets were flying right over the actor’s heads, and much of the production crew seemed to be downrange during the scene. But apparently I was wrong — those were live rounds.

Their use of live ammunition in this movie is downright impressive. Compared to movies like the Boondock Saints II, where the main characters fire a pair of Desert Eagle handguns that recoiled like they were firing .22lr, everything about the action sequences seemed… “right.” I just can’t explain it, but that movie had the BEST action sequences I have ever seen in my entire life. They were realistic, fast paced, and visually stunning. In a word: perfect.

Speaking of the film being visually stunning, one of the interesting things was that there really weren’t that many special effects. Sure there were cars blown up and guns all over the place, but instead of taking the J.J. Abrams approach and cramming special effect after special effect the vast majority of the “special effects” were caused by live ammunition and helicopters. There was no epic plane crash or gigantic nuclear explosion, instead it was what I would expect happens on a SEAL mission; some things blew up and they got the job done.

Before I wrap this review up I just want to geek out here for a second. While it might look like this movie was filmed with super expensive cameras that take up a whole car and cost tens of thousands of dollars, in reality the vast majority of the movie was shot on Canon EOS DSLR cameras — the same kind you can pop down to your local camera shop and pick up without maxing out your credit card.

To me, the fact that a movie of this visual quality can be filmed using consumer equipment and digitally edited means that the major barriers to entry for filmmakers have been removed and anyone with an idea and some time on their hands can produce great looking film. That’s exciting because hopefully it will mean that more interesting independent films will be produced and released instead of Scary Movie 5 and the other remakes and rehashed films slated for this year.

Act of Valor
Runtime: 101 Minutes
Rating: R
Budget: $15 – $18 Million

Production Values: * * * * *
Real SEALs? Live ammo? Actual U.S. Navy equipment? I’m loving it.

Storyline: * *
I think Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare had a better plot line, actually. And I hated that game.

Acting: * * * *
Their non-combat scenes are almost painful, but the second you hand them a gun it makes the pain completely worth it.

Visual effects: * * * * *
Two words: live ammunition. Love it.

Overall: * * * *
If the movie had a better storyline I could see this having been the most  PERFECT war movie of all time. But even as-is, it’s pretty damn close.