'Valor': Great Recruiting, Bad Movie
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
When I was a kid, my family would go to the air show, and what never failed to impress was the Air Force precision fliers, pushing high-tech fighter jets through punishing paces and precision turns so that those watching could glimpse a moment of the skill, science and strength of character their duties in war would require. As I grew older, I'd wonder: about the cost of those displays, about the message they sent, about how those high-flying planes were used to lure recruits into what would probably be less glamorous lives on the ground.
"Act of Valor," directed by ex-stuntmen and extreme sports documentarians Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, is the cinematic equivalent of those air shows -- for a different age, and in a different way, but with a similar aim. Billed as a globe-trotting thriller starring real on-duty Navy members of the elite Sea, Air and Land Team (commonly called SEALs), the film began in part, as related to The New York Times by Rear Adm. Denny Moynihan of the Naval Information Office, with the Navy thinking about its future personnel needs. "For the Navy and the SEAL community, it was, 'Hey, you need 500 more SEALs,' and that launched a series of initiatives to try to attract more people. This film was one of those."
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For years, military members and their families have wondered why we have to endure Hollywood pretty-boy actors speaking wooden dialogue while pointing guns at faceless, nameless, unexplained bearded bad guys as the lead-up to phony-looking action sequences. Thanks to "Act of Valor," they can cheer for actual Navy SEALs and military personnel ... speaking wooden dialogue while pointing guns at faceless, nameless, unexplained bearded bad guys as the lead-up to phony-looking action sequences.
To be honest, there is a certain wow factor -- as well as the pride of seeing one's tax dollars at work -- when, say, a group of SEALs rappel out of a helicopter to the deck of a nuclear submarine, ducking into specially constructed entry tubes that whisk them into the belly of the vessel while minimally exposed to enemy fire.
But while the film has the kind of realism and materiel money alone can't buy -- and the Navy was more than glad to provide it -- the script, by Kurt Johnstad, is a dead tangle of clichés and nonsense. (Johnstad's credited work on both "300" and the upcoming "300" prequel should be a warning flag to anyone.) With its one-two punch of a Jihadist teaming up with a drug cartel leader -- they're related -- working to smuggle suicide bombers into America, the film's tropes are as grimily old as the SEALs' equipment is squeaky-clean new.
The SEALs are never named -- or only named in part -- but it's fascinating to note that superb reflexes, combat-honed judgment and the best in technical gear and tactical thinking can't help one do much with lines like "Be safe" and "Bring it on, buddy!" When one of the SEALs shows his friend and C.O. a picture of his pregnant wife, explaining how he can't wait to see her, the complexities and entanglements of real life in the military are reduced to a "I'm two days from retirement" bit from a cop movie. The cinematography often jumps into the perspective of a first-person-shooter videogame, with the staging and shooting of one sequence -- a mortally wounded SEAL slides a gun to a wounded, unarmed comrade so that the enemy who killed him can be slain -- lifted directly from the finale of one of the "Call of Duty" games.
The camaraderie and competence of Navy SEALs have been much discussed as of late: the death of Osama bin Laden, other covert missions. But all of America's armed services deserve our support and our respect, and it's easier to make and sell a film about the gung-ho heroics of the best of the best than it is to make a film about, say, the reality that service members, reservists and veterans used $88 million in food stamps last year in an effort to bolster low pay and deal with the challenges of repeat deployments. (The documentaries "Restrepo," "The Tillman Story," "Gunner Palace" and "The Devil Came on Horseback," to name four examples, portray real heroism by American military personnel and the real challenges and risks of military engagement just as well as they portray the need for military engagement in the defense of America and other nations.)
Like the air shows of my childhood, "Act of Valor" is designed to crane your neck upward with spectacle, fill your heart with patriotic respect ... and completely shut off any part of your brain that may dare to ask bigger questions about what you're watching and why.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.