September 14, 2012

Act of Valor (2012)

Amongst the U.S. Navy's special operations units, the Sea, Air and Land Teams (SEALs for short) are considered the principal force, due to their rigorous training and high degree of professionalism that have earned the reputation of being amongst the most capable military units in the world. However, despite this reputation as an elite squad, the recent wars in Irak and Afghanistan borough the need of increasing the numbers of SEALs, so with this goal in 2008 a recruiting film was commissioned. The production company that won the project was Bandito Bros., founded by former stuntman Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh. The project kept growing and, after having won the support of the SEALs that were collaborating in their video, McCoy and Waugh offered a twist to the project: instead of a recruiting film, it would be a feature length film that served as tribute to the SEALs. The project was a approved and the result was "Act of Valo", film that while it certainly does a great job as a recruiting tool, has numerous severe flaws as a drama film.

"Act of Valor" begins with a terrorist attack to an elementary school in the Philippines, where the American ambassador (Marc Marguiles) is killed as he was there to pick up his little son. The attack has been organized by Chechen terrorist Abu Shabal (Jason Cottle). While this take place, two CIA agents, Walter (Nestor Serrano) and Morales (Roselyn Sánchez) are working in Costa Rica tracking drug smuggler Mikhail "Christo" Troykovich (Alex Veadov). The agents are discovered and Walter ends up murdered while Morales is kept a prisoner by Christo. With this situation, the Bandito Platoon, SEAL Team Seven is called. In their last day at home, Liutenant Rorke confides Chief Dave that his wife is expecting a baby, so Dave decides to get Rorke a vacation as soon as the new mission is over. The SEALs get into action and manage to rescue Morales in Costa Rica, however, they also discover that Christo not only is linked to the operations of Abu Shabal, they find that Shabal is planning a major attack on American soil.

Taking as basis diverse real life stories about the SEALs, "Act of Valor" was written by Kurt Johnstad (scriptwriter of Zack Snyder's "300"), who was hired to tie all those stories in a cohesive plot where the SEALs' courage and valor were honored and praised. The result is a tale that will definitely sound a bit too familiar for those versed in the action film genre: a dangerous terrorist threatens the nation and a special team is sent to stop him, two team members are best friends and of course one is about to become a father and eagerly hopes to finish the mission to be with his family. The resulting conclusion is unfortunately too easy to guess, and that's because to build up the plot of "Act of Valor" scriptwriter Kurt Johnstad seems to have picked every single cliché of the genre he could find. In fact, even the film's villains form a collection of every single group of America's enemies (it has Muslim terrorist of Russian origin with close ties to Mexican drug lords), making up a true "axis of evil" that the SEALs must face heroically.

In a certain way, "Act of Valor" shows a lot the background found in the careers of directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, both former stuntman turned commercial directors. The action scenes are frequent, and are superbly done, with a high quality technique and a quite dynamic style, very energetic. And even when "Act of Valor" is a film of a relatively low budget, McCoy and Waugh manage to take full advantage to the invaluable support of the U.S. Navy, so there's a great showing of the SEAL's tactics and equipment. And that's where the main selling point of "Act of Valor" is: the film is not just a film about SEALs, actual real SEALs play the main roles in the film. So, what is seen in the screen are real SEALs fighting as real SEALs would do, with the same kind of strategies and movements they would do in real life. This realism is the strongest element of the film, and through the lens of cinematographer Shane Hurbult, filmmakers McCoy and Waugh achieve remarkably done action scenes full of a vibrant dynamism that truly transmit the adrenaline of combat.

However, while the SEALs that work in "Act of Valor" are truly at top form when acting like soldiers in the carefully designed action scenes the film has, when the plot requires them to actually act and develop their characters is where their limitations are seen, because their talents is not precisely the most adequate for this mission. And while it's obvious the great deal of effort done by the soldiers to recite their lines, their nervousness and lack of experience can't be hidden, resulting in a series of pretty poor performances that severely harm the resulting film. Nevertheless, this isn't entirely the SEALs' fault, as in all honesty, Johnstad's character are so poorly developed that to make them interesting would be a real challenge even for an experienced actor. A testament of this is the fact that the rest of the characters (played by professionals) are equally as underdeveloped as the soldiers are. Not even a single one of them offers a good chance to their actors to shine, perhaps only Roselyn Sánchez and Alex Veadov, are the only ones able to create something out of the cliché.

And that's why unfortunately the cliché is the dominant element in "Act of Valor", where it seems that the last thing that was developed was the story. This is tragic for the film, as it leaves it as a group of action scenes connected by a series of poorly acted scenes where nothing relevant or exciting takes place. And the reason of this is simple: the characters are mere caricatures. While "Act of Valor" makes clear that the SEALs have a life full of risk where they face the enemy face to face and offer their lives for their countries, Johnstad offers only eight soldiers that lack a defined personality of their own, avoiding a greater identification with them. True, one of them has five kids, and the other will be a father for the first time, but other than those details, there is nothing else to define them beyond their patriotism and their dedication to their job. In a way, what Johnstad has done is a disrespect to any soldier of any country, as his screenplay dehumanizes them and makes them nothing more than an action figure.

At this point, it's unnecessary to mention that besides it's poorly constructed screenplay, "Act of Valor" is imbued by an excessive American patriotism that shows little interest in presenting the reality of the countries in which the action takes place (it happens everywhere except in the U.S.). However, and while the ethics of their propaganda is questionable (and not a bit subtle), at least in this aspect it can be said that "Act of Valor" accomplishes its mission as a recruiting tool. The truly unforgivable sin of the film is that by pretending to honor the American soldiers, it presents them as empty machines void of personality and useful only to do their job. Nothing is know about they like, what they feel or what they think. the only think known about them is that they are good at killing. Not a particularly honorable portrait.

This review was originally published in Spanish for Habitación 101 in May the 25th of 2012. Habitación 101 is a great site to check for news and reviews on cinema and theatre in Spanish.

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