Every time I think American action films can’t get any more ludicrously jingoistic, Hollywood goes and proves me wrong. Act of Valor, a production over which the US Navy had final cut, made me yearn for the nuanced screenwriting of Battleship, the moderate politics of Transformers 3 and the versatility and range of Sam Worthington and Taylor Kitsch. A twelve million-dollar military recruitment ad tailor-made for the videogame generation, the propagandist intent behind this film would have left me fuming if the script and acting hadn’t been so inconceivably atrocious. But it is, and hence scorn seems like a more fitting reaction than outrage. The film really is too blatant to be insidious. Mostly, it’s just really, really stupid.
When a CIA agent is taken hostage in Costa Rica, the members of SEAL Team Seven are sent in to get her out. Played, as the advertisements proudly tout, by active duty Navy SEALs, our heroes are all identified by name via whooshing on-screen graphics, but who they are as individuals is totally unimportant. What is important is they’re American, and that they understand that the only thing better than democracy is killing democracy’s enemies. Their first mission soon leads to another, in Somalia, followed by another, in the South Pacific. At a certain point, with the trail of bodies they kept leaving behind them, I couldn’t help but wonder about issues of national sovereignty. But hey, who cares about international treaties when baddies are hiding bombs in ice-cream vans? There’s a war on terror to be fought, goddammit!
From the opening narration, in which a soldier philosophises on honour, duty and what it means to be a man, Act of Valor plays like a compendium of war film clichés. There’s no method of establishing stakes that is lazier than giving your lead character a heavily pregnant wife. Yet that’s just one of just many shortcuts screenwriter Kurt Johnstad takes in his hurry to get to the next scene of a sniper shooting a nefarious foreigner in the head. The acting from the SEALs is universally atrocious, to the point that you actually feel embarrassed for them. That said, I’m reluctant to hold them responsible. These men are soldiers, not actors and in the former role, at least, they’re convincing.
This is the movie’s only strength. There is an authenticity to the operational efficiency of the SEAL team that, in the heat of battle at least, I admit I found rather of compelling. Directors Scott Waugh and Mike McCoy make frequent use of first-person shooter style point-of-view shots, a decision that brings a tension and immediacy to many of the individual action scene. Of course the illusion of realism is shattered the instant any of the characters open their mouths. Despite the fact that the action looks credible, there’s no way, with its ridiculous story and cringe-worthy line delivering, that you could argue Act of Valor is realistic. And without that gimmick, what’s left could only be enjoyed by the kind of people who sing the “F*ck Yeah” Team America song without realising that it’s meant to be ironic.