Friday, March 2, 2012

Act of Valor

Alternate Title:  Band of Extremely Badass Brothers

One sentence synopsis:  A squad of navy SEALs undertakes a series of harrowing missions to stop a Chechen fanatic from launching terror strikes in the US.

Things Havoc liked:  There is an art to a good action film. Despite what haters of the genre might think, one gun-soaked blood opera is not the same as another, and the classic action films remain classics to this day for specific reasons. As a connoisseur of action films, I feel somewhat qualified to speak to the distinctions between good and bad action.  So before I say anything else, let me assure everyone that this movie has very good action.

Act of Valor is a strange movie, produced by a couple of documentary filmmakers who decided to convert their project into a fictional film starring very real navy SEALs, men still on active duty whose identities are so secret that their names don't appear in the credits or on any publicity item. The villains and secondary characters are all played by professional actors (though none I recognized), but the men themselves are all men who do precisely this sort of thing for a living, and that lends the film a certain sense of weight it might otherwise not have. Wisely, the filmmakers enhance this effect by making the film look and feel different than the standard action movie. The soldiers are workmanlike and professional, not bombastic, and utter neither one-liners nor catchphrases. When the bullets start flying, they keep command of their voices and emotions, neither screaming like banshees, nor obviously pretending to be calm for the sake of appearing badass. Briefings are conducted in (of all things) a normal tone of voice, without either bombast or over-formality (I actually quite liked the CO referring to terrorists as "a group of heavily-armed assholes". When the officer asks for questions after explaining the mission, the men ask questions one might actually ask, as opposed to asking about things they already know so as to provide exposition to the audience. Moreso than any team of movie badasses I've seen before, this unit looks like it could actually be a SEAL team, which probably has something to do with the fact that they actually are one.

The plot is nothing special by the standards of action movies, an evil terrorist who wants to kill Americans, and the virtuous heroes who have to stop him. But as before, it is the adopted realism of the film that sets it apart. The movie opens with a harrowing scene referencing the Belsen School massacre, one of the most horrific atrocities of the modern age. Many films with evil villains only imply the evil as a theoretical possibility, either because they fear to offend, or to obtain a PG-13 rating. This movie makes no such compromises. The villains are evil men, such as we are reminded actually exist in the world, and the heroes we are watching are the real people tasked with destroying them. Their impersonal hatred and calculated cruelty, while never made to appear completely sourceless, is not couched in any way, giving what might be a mindless action scene in another movie weight and interest. The action scenes themselves (to get back to what I began with) are involved and well-shot. Shaky-cam is used sparingly, and many shots are done in a helmet-cam style of perspective viewing. Unlike the pointless video-game analogues in Doom or Resident Evil though, these shots reflect well the chaos of a real battle, and help further ground the film in a realistic style. Though outright gore is kept to a minimum, the movie does not shy away from showing the actual effects of modern infantry weapons on the targets they are used against. Finally, several sequences of non-combat operations, including an excellent (non-enhanced) interrogation scene, are done very well, grounding the film in the overall sense that we are watching the way things actually operate in the real world.

Things Havoc disliked: As I mentioned before, these are not professional actors, and it shows. The dialogue sequences, when not involved with the technical details of combat and preparations for more combat are badly stilted and hollow, emoted as they are by men who are trying their best, but clearly have no idea how to act. Line delivery in the civilian sequences is middling-to-poor, particularly at the beginning of the film, when we are meeting (briefly) our heroes, and seeing them live their "normal" lives. Given the contrast between this and the workmanlike delivery we get during the actual action, I must conclude either that A: the writing for these civilian scenes was pretty poor, and spiced up by the SEALs themselves when it got to the finer points of combat, B: the men were simply better able to emote lines that had relevance to their actual lives (fighting and combat communications), or C: both.

The story, meanwhile, is pretty lackluster as well. Tearful farewells as our heroes go out to place their lives on the line, calls back home to see how everyone is getting on without them, much flag symbolism and patriotic horn music, you all know the drill. A deep analysis on the roots of war this ain't. Instead, the film is a love letter to the special forces of the US Navy, and plays (and feels) like the recruitment film I suspect it originally was. The shocking, brutal violence of the bad guys contrasting with the down-home, aw-shucks patriotism of our clean-cut heroes makes the film play like a slightly more modern version of John Wayne's "Green Berets", and we are left waiting for the filmmaker to stop trying to convince us that he loves America sufficiently and get back to the meat and potatoes.

Final thoughts:  It's very easy to be cynical about a film like this, where the patriotism is front-and-center, and the lines so clearly drawn between good and evil. Many of the professional reviewers (Ebert included, of course), have done just that at length. But at risk of sounding like I'm beginning another rant, I would like to propose that just because Platoon was an amazing film does not mean that every war movie needs to be Platoon. In the world of today, when shocking and senseless violence perpetrated by men whose motivations seem unfathomable to most of us can occur at any time, a movie like this, purporting to show the world as seen from the eyes of the men who actually fight the War on Terror, may well have a place. The action sequences in this film are some of the best I have seen in a long time, easily beating out the over-scripted eye-candy one finds from the average blockbuster, and I'll admit, it is somewhat refreshing to occasionally see the same level of uncompromising glare turned on the enemies of the US as is so often turned on the US itself.

One can accuse this film of many things, but despite the over-patriotic undertone and the simplistic story, mindlessness is not one of them. This is a film made by people deeply associated with the subject matter in question, and their expertise and desire to represent the heroism of these elite soldiers shines through, and redeems what might otherwise be just another jingoistic exercise in nationalism. Ultimately, I can't say this was a great film, but I can say that, despite appearances, it was not something I had ever seen before, and if it influences the direction military-action movies take in the future, I think we might all be the better for it.

Final Score:  7/10

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