Act of Valor
Seal of approval
How do you take your trees? I couldn’t have known before seeing “Act of Valor,’’ but I prefer mine in heavy camouflage, face paint, and capable of demolishing a Mexicali neighborhood run by a wildly armed drug cartel. I prefer my trees to be Navy SEALs, particularly the real-life ones who’ve been recruited to star in this peculiarly entertaining exercise in bare-bones, Hollywood-style action heroism. The movie lasts a little more than 100 minutes, but we can tell in about two that discovery of tomorrow’s Poitiers or De Niros will have to wait until perhaps, well, tomorrow. When these men speak, you suddenly realize how uniquely good those Ents were in “Lord of the Rings.’’
It’s true that the active-duty SEALs playing the SEALs - we’re not permitted to know their names, for security reasons - have one facial expression and one tone of voice. Ask them to speak to each other about such nonmilitary business as life, love, fatherhood, patriotism, or surfing, and the movie becomes a commercial for some yet-to-be-sold masculinizing pharmaceutical. Dudetrek or Bropecia. Something like that.
In all, the studiously manly, borderline monosyllabic, frequently terrible, often explanatory dialogue - “moving with tertiary extract!’’ - might leave you parched for charisma. But “Act of Valor’’ is certain to be showing right next to “Safe House,’’ the box-office hit with Denzel Washington as a CIA operative gone sour. Though very little compares to Washington’s swaggering cool, “Act of Valor’’ is a roller-coaster ride. “Safe House’’ is a parked car.
The casting in “Act of Valor,’’ of course, leads to the movie’s innovations. Dialogue that chiefly entails laying out tactics for missions executed in the next scene pretty much obviates any need for Kenneth Branagh. Having the military play itself is propaganda on one hand, and simple efficiency on the other. It also concentrates the movie-going public’s attraction to combat as spectacle. So why bother with a star if what we’ve come to see, ultimately, are the talents of the stunt crew?
As it happens, “Act of Valor’’ was directed by Mike “Mouse’’ McCoy and Scott Waugh, a couple of veteran stuntmen, who don’t simply admire the SEALs’ defiance of death. They appear to relate to it. Written by Kurt Johnstad, who’s a credited writer of “300,’’ the film involves a typical doomsday plot that manages to combine separate international affronts. A SEAL platoon heads into the tropics to rescue a kidnapped CIA agent (Roselyn Sanchez) who’s been tracking the connection between a Ukrainian drug smuggler (Alex Veadov) and a mass-murdering Chechen jihadist (Jason Cottle), whose bond is tighter than initially suspected.
The smuggler is helping the jihadist execute a plot to destroy a handful of American cities using state-of-the-art bomb vests strapped to lowly Filipinos. What results are stressful action sequences in jungles, amid shanties, and on a yacht. And the Chechen is a villain whose sense of high fashion and culture makes him amusingly loathsome. When he enters the vest-bomb manufacturer’s warehouse, a man is playing music. “Mendelssohn?’’ he asks. “No. Brahms.’’
Accordingly, there is beauty in this movie that you’d never experience in any film starring Chuck Norris or Michael Dudikoff. The sound mix keeps suspenseful quiet, while you marvel at what perfect amphibians the SEALs are and how, with them, killing people places a crucial premium on gentleness (the SEALs tiptoeing down a hallway, stirring the air with hand signals, tapping a shoulder, or falling through the night sky). If only the frantic editing had managed to linger longer on the dreaminess of those shots.
Trying to reconcile the movie’s poetic imagery and intermittent narration with all the killing, bombing, and shooting (using live ammunition) produces far more confusion than Mendelssohn and Brahms. Malick? No. Bruckheimer and Bay! Who else do we have to thank for the shots in “Act of Valor’’ in which the sun appears to sizzle like a peach on a grill? Where else would we find a man who keeps a big American flag folded in his pocket?
Really, the film’s presiding spirit of American might and international intimidation is that of Tom Clancy. He’s credited as an advisor on this film, and his influence shows up from time to time. A scene between a SEAL and the smuggler is among the best in the movie. The two men trade insinuations, and the tension is strong. Veadov is a better actor than the SEAL. But this SEAL, with his graying beard and wry sense of humor, has better lines. A sharply done encounter like that implies just what Clancy may have advised.
The SEALs’ profile is higher since a team killed Osama Bin Laden last year. There hasn’t been this much popular interest since Demi Moore fought to join a similar outfit in “G.I. Jane.’’ “Act of Valor’’ creates an illusion of authenticity while doing strategically little to dispel the group’s mystique. Often with an action film, you know that what you’re watching has been staged. You applaud the rigorous theater. Here, when the film’s climactic sequence has ended, there’s no impulse to clap. The verisimilitude holds you in moral check.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.