If you pay your money to watch Act of Valor in a theater, the movie you see won't exactly be the one you're expecting if you've been paying attention to all the media coverage and advertising. If you can take AOV on its own terms, though, you're going to see the best action picture ever subsidized by the United States government.
AOV is the first movie to star active-duty military personnel, SEALs who appear with full Navy approval. Their participation creates both incredible advantages and complex challenges for the filmmakers. How well you think they dealt with each is going to determine what you think about this film.
Directors Mouse McCoy and Scott Waugh (a/k/a The Bandito Brothers) have a background in extreme sports movies and they put their mastery of action sequence mechanics to incredible use here. There's no concern for the standard Hollywood conventions where you meet the characters, learn their back stories and start to care about them before things get weird: AOV launches straight into the action and doesn't let up for its 140-minute running time.
The directors make the most of the SEALs' input in those action scenes. They've taken the time to get a sense of how the missions go down and executed those sequences flawlessly with none of the CGI post-production that clogs up modern effects-driven pictures. The Costa Rican hot extract of a tortured CIA agent is the movie's high point, a near-perfect combination of the directors' skills and the Navy's incredible war tech.
That war tech is the AOV's secret weapon. That an independently-funded, low-budget movie manages to look like a blockbuster is a direct result of the directors' access to Navy hardware. The scenes aboard a nuclear sub are literally priceless. You've never seen anything like them in another movie because no one's ever been allowed that kind of access before.
Another product of that Navy access is the decision to cast non-actors in crucial lead roles. That decision pays off big time in the scenes based on actual maneuvers: the SEALs pull off the action sequences with an authority that few actors could begin to suggest. The long takes make the scenes feel like they're happening in real time instead of snippets getting pieced together in the editing suite.
The directors say they had a hard time convincing the SEALs to act in the film after they got the necessary approvals from the brass and all the military personnel who appear in the film are credited by first name only. It's hard to think that's for security reasons (some of the SEALs attended the Hollywood premiere and their high school friends are probably already contacting US Magazine with childhood stories of their friends who are about to be movie stars): maybe it's a way for everyone to feel like they didn't violate any codes about not drawing attention to yourself at a time when your face is 60 ft high on a theater screen.
Anyway, that decision also comes at a price. The most positive thing you can say about Lt. Cmdr. Rorke and Special Chief Dave's performances is that they act like they studied at the Elvis Presley School of Acting. Neither of them is totally comfortable with the plot points they're asked to convey and they're especially awkward in the scenes where it's just the two of them on camera.
And yet, it's most certainly these guys' input that gives AOV one of its greatest strengths: the film shows a bunch of guys banding together and going out to do a job. There's no elaborate backstories, no dark motivations, no attempt to suggest that men can't act heroically without some deep secret that drives their commitment. AOV seems like it captures a group of guys at a random time doing their job and the implication is that they've performed equally badass acts of heroism before the movie started and they go back out and do it again the next day after the movie ends.
The screenplay (written by 300 author Kurt Johnstad) is merely serviceable. The bad guys don't get much character development either and the movie's not going to slow down enough that you spend too much thinking about logic and motivations. The terrorist plot, which could've been lifted from almost any random Steven Seagal movie, seems designed more to spur the action than offer any real insight into how the Navy counters our actual terror threats.
In spite of what I said about untrained actors, the movie's best performance comes from the Senior Chief. His interrogation of the arms dealer Christo is the movie's high point, in spite of the fact that Christo flips too quickly. We could've used a few more minutes of that scene and we unfortunately don't get to see him again for the rest of the movie. If he's considering retirement anytime soon, I'm sure he's got a long career as a character actor ahead if he wants it.
So, in spite of all the talk about Act of Valor being the product of a Navy recruiting initiative and how much everyone involved wanted to respect the sacrifice of all our military personnel have made in the years since 9/11, what we've really got here is a B-movie with awesome action sequences subsidized and approved by the US Navy.
That's all meant as a compliment. The guys over on our news pages can analyze and debate whether the Navy should be in the business of making these kinds of movies and how they should pick the next filmmakers who get the same kind of access they gave the Bandito Brothers. Or whether the Navy should ask for a piece of the profits after they've let someone film on a nuclear submarine.
Here's the thing that none of your professional movie critics are going to notice: a movie more concerned with better acting and more attention to plot details probably wouldn't have devoted as much energy to capturing the power and elegance in the way these guys operate. Even though the camerawork is beautiful and the editing is equally impressive, there's a headlong energy to the whole proceeding that keeps it from being slick and soulless.
Ignore most of what you read. Trust this review. Pay attention when the Mad Duo weigh with an epic breakdown over at Breach Bang Clear where they call it "appallingly good." Also ignore anyone who tries to talk about the political implications of AOV, especially the goofballs at the Huffington Post and Big Hollywood, neither of whom can understand military personnel serve a higher purpose than supporting their side's politics of the week.
If you want moral complexity and subtle acting, there's a few hundred movies we could recommend that you watch instead. If you can overlook the cheesier parts of the ceramic ball bearing terrorist plot, then Act of Valor offers a real sense of what life and combat are like for the SEALs who serve our country.
Maybe it's Osama bin Laden mania (hey, we held off until the last paragraph but you knew it was coming) that gave this film its chance to be seen, but it looks like the US Navy is helping to launch a feature career for two guys have a real gift for filming action scenes that follow the laws of physics. That seems like a good return on investment to us. Go see Act of Valor and help make sure these guys get the money to go back and film another one soon.