An Act of Valor is the Call of Duty
A Film Review of Act of Valor
By: Lawrence Napoli
[[wysiwyg_imageupload:786:]]If for some reason the title of this film review is somewhat confusing, let me be quite clear. Act of Valor is the unofficial Call of Duty (Modern Warfare) film adaptation. It takes all but five minutes into this film to realize this, but then I kind of got that impression by identifying the major demographic that populated the theater as I searched for my seat: males 13-18. Which is exactly the kind of people the US military covets among all else because war films are just about as old as filmmaking, and to this day they serve agendas beyond shear entertainment; namely glorification and recruitment. It’s not just the fact that this film has to do with contemporary warfare that has young men marching to the theaters. I believe it’s because of this film’s strong visual connection with Call of Duty style videogames and the “game-ification” of the violence in war from said games that accounts for the attraction. I seriously doubt that anyone in the audience not named Lawrence Napoli would have any interest in sitting through a war film like Patton (1970 – and one of the greatest films [war or otherwise] of all time). In that regard, I almost disqualify Act of Valor as a “war film” because it does not contain a traditional narrative, doesn’t feature any unique characters and is quite disciplined in its action sequences not going “over the top.” Act of Valor is a war simulation film in that it delivers a dramatic (yet fictional) slice of life of the exceptional American operators who are proficient at more than just doing calisthenics and chilling out on American bases. These men exist to kill the enemy (accent on KILL), and American security and the rule of global law and order are better served because of their efforts.
I was quite satisfied with the action throughout this film, but the viewer better be okay with a healthy dose of the first person perspective. If not, you may find this film a bit off-putting. Every action sequence cuts to this camera angle on multiple occasions, but the editors mix in enough traditional dolly, crane and steady-cam shots to dissuade motion sickness. No, this isn’t a modern warfare version of Paranormal Activity, but be prepared when the bullets start flying. And speaking of those bullets, everything about the gunplay from the setup to the engagement and execution of the enemy on screen is the very definition of professionalism. Of course, one would expect that of active duty Navy SEALs, but doing it in real life is different than doing it for entertainment. Authenticity is this film’s number one strength and it really shines through not just in the action, but in the subtle yet effective performances of the SEALs themselves. There’s no “Mother Goose” this (from Top Gun) or “saving Private Ryan” that in how the men address each other on and off mission. Their dialogue comes off as casual and matter of fact despite the downtime between explosions and body counts. Perhaps what is most amazing about these soldiers is despite their destructive force, they have an ability to “flip the switch off” for each other and their families. Although this dichotomy is not explored fully (only hinted at towards the beginning of the film) it exists to show that these types of people are as real as the sacrifices some make on the ever changing and unforgiving battlefield.
An interesting fact about this film is that it is surprisingly removed from the typical big dollars of Hollywood studios which seem to go hand in hand with films that feature huge effects, big explosions, cool looking vehicles and well choreographed action. The distributors for Act of Valor are an amalgam of companies from Canada, Turkey, Singapore, India, Thailand, Switzerland and yes, also the USA (thank you Relativity Media). This is quite interesting seeing how this film is very American-centric as being identified as “the good guys," and I wonder if every country of origin for those distributors maintains that sentiment within its respective populations. Countries like the UK may be partners in the global anti-terrorist initiative, but seeing this film will not inspire the British to pump their chests and get fired up about contributing to the cause. This film has that exact effect on Americans so I would challenge any up and coming investigative journalist to track the money that funded Act of Valor beyond the distributors because it is an effective piece of propaganda. Let’s just say that I would not be surprised to find a Pentagon bank account at the end of that chain. At the very least, the military brass must have given the SEALs permission to be movie stars for however long the production took. It’s not like they could fit in a few hours of film shooting at their leisure after working their day jobs.
Do you want to know another area where this film channels Call of Duty directly? The general plot seems to have been a direct composite of every game’s story. The bad guys in Call of Duty are one of or a combination of Nazis, Russians or terrorists. Act of Valor doesn’t exactly throw me a curve by featuring a Makirov wanna-be who converts to extremist Islam and uses his Russian connections to proliferate his own personal brand of terror. My boy Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw over at The Escapist and Zero Punctuation could easily copy/paste his comedic criticism of Modern Warfare 3 and have it apply to Act of Valor’s cookie-cutter story. The rest of this non-linear tale fills out with standard issue “this is the plan to kill the bad guys,” “the killing of the bad guys,” rinsing and repeating save for one area of intrigue that does not get explained in the script. The Russian/Muslim bad guy uses neither Russians nor Arabs as recruits for his agents of death and it raises a very significant point about the current state of the “war on terror.” The entire Third World is a hotbed for terrorist recruitment, and that message hasn’t exactly been front page material in the American media as evidenced by most of its video coverage concerning terrorist activity being siphoned off of Al Jazeera’s network. Had this film delved more into this issue, it certainly would have been much more intelligent in exposing the truth that the face of terror knows no ethnicity, creed or country of origin.
As for the acting . . . well like I said earlier, it’s mostly authentic soldier type back and forth along with the prescribed level of military terminology, acronyms and jargon. However, don’t expect any moving performances outside of “fragging out!” because you won’t find it. Even the Hollywood performers that fill in the non-SEAL roles like Roselyn Sanchez (what the heck is she doing in this film?) can’t deliver much due to limitations of the story. The SEALs are the true stars and their acting ability, though filled with effort, lacks. The best scene in the entire movie is between the SEAL interrogator and Christo; equal parts amusing, frightening and dramatic.
Act of Valor is “the number one movie in America” the same way every action film manages to attain that title so don’t go see this movie because it happens to be trending right now. I would, however, recommend this film to anyone that wants a glimpse of more authentic military activity, how the responsibilities of the US armed forces are distinctly global in nature and the numerous differences between “operators” and “grunts.” The action is solid, the story is basic and a message of duty, sacrifice, brotherhood and determination holds it all together. Hawks will love Act of Valor. Doves will not.