A movie about Navy SEALs in which the soldiers are played by real SEALs. It sounds like a recipe for authentic action and horrible acting. But maybe the soldiers are actually decent actors, and even if they aren’t, then maybe the action can make up for it. But neither of those was the case for Act of Valor.
Abu Shabal is a bad guy. While in the Philippines, he managed to blow up a bunch of kids, along with a US ambassador, with a bomb-filled ice cream truck, and to pick up a bunch of wannabe martyrs in the process. Christo is also a bad guy, and while in Costa Rica he orchestrated the capture of Dr. Lisa Morales because he knew that she was also working at gathering intelligence on a link between him and Abu. And when Lisa is captured, the Americans learn about it almost immediately and call in an elite force to rescue her. It’s an intense mission involving snipers, machine guns, RPGs, armored boats, and a multi-car chase, but the good guys prevail and Lisa is rescued. But more important than that, Lisa’s cell phone is rescued, because it contains not only proof of a collaboration between Abu and Christo, but information about a plot to infiltrate the United States with jihadists wearing lethal bomb vests that are thin enough to wear under clothes without arousing suspicion and won’t set off metal detectors. Now it’s necessary to find the bad guys and take them out before they make it into the country.
To call the real-life Navy SEALs bad actors would be a tremendous compliment. They are truly awful. Unfortunately, the actors in other roles don’t get to use the “this isn’t my real job” excuse, nor the writers, directors, cinematographers, editors, and others involved with the production, but they are all equally horrible at what they do. Many of the action scenes are good, and the fight near the beginning in the rescue is a lot of fun. Unfortunately, there is far too much time spent in the film when fighting isn’t happening, and it really suffers as a result. There are a lot of filler scenes that aren’t important to the plot. There is a surplus of scenes showing the SEALs’ comradery, and others showing them as real family men. There is an excess of voiceover. And yet with all of this stuff-between-the-fighting scenes, we still miss out on key parts of the story. The SEALs are just handed information with no explanation for how it was obtained that allows them to show up at exactly the right place at exactly the right time in order to complete the next step in the mission. There’s a laughable “interrogation” scene in which a bad guy goes from blithely mocking a soldier to telling him everything he knows with no more prompting than having his desk cleared off forcefully. And the end is so thick with pandering that it’s simply revolting.
Early on, I still held out hope that the action would be strong enough to overcome all the negatives, and the first rescue mission even served to bolster that prospect. I was willing to overlook the large number of first-person shots making the film look like a video game. I was OK with the stupidity of a covert night mission in which all of the soldiers had their easily-visible laser sights on and eliminating any possibility of stealth. But there is an obvious turning point in the quality of the action where something so stupid happens that it elicited a simultaneous groan from everyone in the theater, and all the fighting that happened after that was tainted with ridiculousness. And when the big climax finally comes, the film chooses to hunker down and get even more stupid rather than make an attempt at redeeming itself.
This is a film that was doomed long before the decision to use real soldiers instead of real actors, and in fact that decision is probably the only thing it has going for it. If they had used real actors with the same script and crew, there’s no way it could have been anything but a complete flop. But the press generated from the “real soldiers” gimmick and the general expectation of sub-par acting allowed the film to make back its budget a few times over which only raises the real and scary possibility that they’ll try something like this again.