Act of Valor is, according to the opening titles, “based on real acts of valor,” whatever that means. It stars real active-duty Navy SEALs, and, as the uniformed representative of the New York Coast Guard, 9th Regiment who introduced my screening explained, much of it was filmed with live-fire ammunition.
None of the above works to strengthen the muddled movie’s dramatic narrative, but the film’s boasted authenticity—including cameos from the latest in military hardware—and its closing dedication “to all the warriors headed downrange in the future” make clear the aim: This is the most lavish recruiting tool the armed forces have deployed to theaters in memory, besting that pre-movie commercial with the “freedom ain’t so free” Kid Rock soundtrack a few years back.
The SEAL actors go uncredited, but at the center of Act of Valor are “Chief Dave” and “Lieutenant Commander Rorke,” two minimally charismatic studs who compete to deliver lines in the deepest bass-baritone. (You can remember which is which only because one of them keeps a toothpick in the corner of his mouth.)
After a suicide bombing at the International School in Jakarta, Dave, Rorke, and the cursorily introduced members of their team must deploy to the likes of Costa Rica, the Sudan, and Mexico to follow the border-hopping conspiracy of a jihadist network led by a Ukrainian-born convert to Islam, Abul Shabal (Jason Cottle), arranging to purchase the latest in suicide-bomb technology from his boyhood friend, an arms dealer (Alex Veadov).
Despite that setup, the villains come across as individuals rather more compellingly than do the film’s ostensible heroes, mostly mouthpieces for warrior credo recited in voiceover (“No one is more dangerous than a man who can harness his emotions,” etc.). This is the prose of 300 co-screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, again showing his obvious reverence for martial values, though this time without a mythological visual analogue. The workaday soldier’s dialogue heard here has, one suspects, the same relation to the real thing as the network-television mic’d talk of football players does to an actual, unobserved huddle.
You might argue that individual faces don’t matter here, as individuals aren’t the heroes of Act of Valor so much as is the organization, the unit. But if this is an homage to teamwork, it’s no great shakes at clarifying how a team works. The combat footage, meant to show the unit working in tandem, was shot in large part with helmet-mounted cameras, a POV familiar to the film’s targeted demographic from tactical first-person-shooter video games. This obscures any broader understanding of physical relationships for an “immersive” cacophony of first-person perspectives: More than any cinematic precedent, Act of Valor most closely resembles the latest upgrade of America’s Army, the multiplayer recruitment-drive game launched by the U.S. military in 2002.
The film’s first set piece is the best, a personnel-recovery mission that breaks away into a parallel-action chase capped by a gunboat pulling around a bend in the river, mini-gun erupting, with the fanfare of arriving cavalry. But that basic tactical clarity otherwise escapes Act of Valor: It’s all about you-are-there adrenaline injections, a string of jolts to work up an appetite for the real thing.