Film review: Act of Valor

Americans love military and action films, as box office returns show. But what if filmmakers eschewed ridiculous plot lines for actual missions fought by American commandos, along with realistic depictions of terrorism, violence, and weapons fire?  And what if most of the actors on screen aren’t actors at all, but actual Navy SEALs?  Act of Valor tells those stories and uses those fighting men — and the result is an excellent action movie that keeps viewers riveted to the action until the very end.

The film opens in cross cuts between a SEAL team on leave and a CIA operative who gets captured in Costa Rica after she tracks down a Russian drug smuggler — and discovers that he’s also facilitating for a Chechen Islamist terrorist group, which just conducted a successful attack on a school in the Philippines.  The SEALs think their mission is over until their commander gets intel from a phone captured during the rescue and discovers that the Chechen terrorist leader has plans to attack inside the US, using suicide-bomb vests that can defeat any metal detector.  Can the SEALs stop the group from infiltrating through Mexico and wreaking havoc and mayhem inside the US?

Act of Valor turned out to be surprisingly entertaining, and very well made.  The production qualities are excellent, and it uses some familiar quick-cut techniques in the battle scenes that enhance the action, but otherwise uses traditional approaches in cinematography.  The sea chase scenes are especially good, but nothing beats the depictions of close-in fighting interspersed throughout the film.  I have a friend who has served in the SEALs for decades, and he once told us Tears of the Sun (an excellent film) came closest to depicting how SEALs work in real life.  I suspect that this will move to the top of his list.

The SEALs are also surprisingly good on screen, although clearly new at emoting for an audience, hardly one of the skill sets they find necessary in their work.  That enhances the authenticity of the presentation, though, and it’s very easy to like these men — and to suffer along with them.  There are no archetypes, really; there is one expectant father who wants to come back to see his child be born, a running subplot in the film, but for the most part focuses on the men doing their jobs.  There are a few lighter moments, but no laugh lines or comic subplots.  

Oddly, the film that I think comes closest to this as a comparison is … Backdraft.  That film used a few authentic firefighters in speaking roles and had more backstory and subplots, but it took very seriously its responsibility to tell about the bravery and toughness of firefighters everywhere, and what they have to face.  Act of Valor is a better film for its closer focus and better pacing, but it has that same general feel when it comes to the interactions on screen between the SEALs. It’s easy to take this film seriously when it treats its subject with this much respect.  Act of Valor celebrates traditional values of duty, honor, and especially sacrifice, and reminds us that every day men like these — and these men — keep us from harm we never knew was coming.

Needless to say, this film is rated R for very good reasons.  There are only a couple of instances of cursing, which surprised me a little, but the violence is depicted very realistically (or as realistically as they could get with an R rating).  A number of people get shot, a few blown up, and blood spatter is not spared in those scenes.  There are also depictions of the aftermath of torture involving the CIA agent, not the torture itself, but it’s still pretty intense.  I’d be very cautious about taking a pre-teen to this film, and would strongly suggest to parents to see it by themselves first before thinking about whether pre-teens or younger teens are ready to handle it.

I would highly recommend Act of Valor to everyone else.  There are not a whole lot of movies coming out of Hollywood that tell these stories or celebrate those virtues — in fact, there are damn few of these, just as there are damn few of these men.  We need to flock to the theaters to support those that do get made, and to show our appreciation for the men who made this one.  And fortunately for us, we get to see an excellent and moving film, too.

Be sure to read Kevin McCullough’s deconstruction of some of the criticism Act of Valor has received from the Left.

Update: I had the headline and the first half of the review correct, but about halfway through started calling the move Acts of Valor.  It’s Act [singular] of Valor, and I have corrected it where I had it wrong.

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