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Non-Review Review: Act of Valour

Act of Valour is an interesting little experiment that almost undermines its own central premise. Using real-life Navy SEALs to portray fictional Navy SEALs, one might imagine that the directors were opting for a naturalistic approach to the somewhat conventional action film. On paper, it seems like an attempt to construct a film drawing on the raw experiences of people who have lived through events similar to those depicted on screen, and to harness that personality in a way that connects with the audience more faithfully than an actor giving a performance could. Unfortunately, the movie winds up feeling horribly staged, with the cast given naturalistic dialogue that sound painfully rehearsed, a blaring soundtrack and an impersonal approach to the action sequences. While it might have the right stuff at its core, the surface of the movie is almost impenetrable.

Not quite a blast...

In the end, it seems like the casting decision was nothing more than a gimmick, because the director handles his volunteers so carelessly. I’m sure that the people appearing on film have done some great and noble things for their country, and have saved countless lives, but they aren’t actors. You can’t just give anybody a script and expect them to read lines referencing Roman Polanski or Star Trek as if in casual conversation.

The guys on film seem so confined and so rigidly structured that there’s almost nothing organic about their presence. If Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh wanted to take advantage of the group of individuals at their disposal, they really should have allowed more room and more space for some sort of personality to shine through, rather than using rehearsed lines and interactions to convey that. An actor would be inefficient in a combat situation, and the reverse is also true. There’s a way to work with people who aren’t veteran performers, and directors like Scorsese do it regularly, but it’s immediately apparent than McCoy and Waugh can’t.

It was a long shot, after all...

The problem is that the script gives the cast dialogue that should sound casual and relaxed, the kind of day-to-day interactions that people have, with their own idiosyncrasies. “He pulled a Roman Polanski on my ass,” one character remarks of a disappeared individual. Another tries to make a point about abstract art, referring to the “box-y people” in his father’s paintings. At a briefing, an agent was captured by “an unknown number of armed assholes.” These should feel like spur-of-the-moment, straight-from-the-brain-of-a-SEAL thoughts, but they are delivered as if they’ve been repeated time and time again. If the cast had been given colder and more functional dialogue, it might arguably have worked better. McCoy and Waugh aren’t used to handling these veterans.

There’s nothing wrong with that, just as there’s nothing wrong with the fact that these highly-trained professionals aren’t gifted thespians; it the two facts just can’t be reconciled with one another, and create an inherent conflict within the movie itself. The writing isn’t great of itself, but I’m watching an interrogation scene that should be filled with subtext and chemistry, and I’m wondering what an established character actor might have done to elevate the bog-standard material. I understand that the guy who plays Senior has probably done this in real life, but he hasn’t worked with a script and he hasn’t worked with cameras in the same way, and it shows. Imagine Jeff Fahey in a similar role, and the movie becomes a lot more fun.

Keep on truckin'...

That’s the thing about the direction from McCoy and Waugh. They shoot it like a weird hybrid between a lost Chuck Norris film and a video clip from Modern Warfare. The epic soundtrack, which sounds heavily influenced by The Dark Knight, ensures that the audience always knows how to feel, in a manner not unlike pantomime. There are some impressive shots of the military machine in action, with helicopters taking off and sunset, crew boarding submarines, soldiers emerging from under water. In that respect, it feels almost like an eighties action movie lost to history, just without a strong leading actor and any small sense of irony to guide it through.

On the other hand, McCoy and Waugh insist on using those “down the sights” shots, emulating a first-person shooter. While that works for a video game where you literally are the soldier in question, it disconnects us from the soldiers here. The pair seem heavily influenced by video games, with one soldier lying dying as his first-person vision fades in and out slowly and his hand struggles to pick up a gun. More than that, the movie uses clumsy overlays to introduce us to characters and locations. These heads-up displays might be forgiven if they cut down on needless exposition, but they just serve to move us another step away from the characters, none of whom ever feel truly real.

They could use a lift...

The plot doesn’t help. I’ve compared it to an eighties action movie before, and the comparison holds. Indeed, I reckon that if you dropped the cast of The Expendables in here, you’d actually end up with a decent movie – certainly one much better than either individual film. The movie effectively sees a gigantic super-villain team-up to conduct an improbably well-organised and randomly-uncovered terror strike against the United States, something that will make September 11th look “like a walk in the park.”

The movie sees an improbable axis of evil formed between a Jewish weapons smuggler, Mexican drug cartels and Islamic fundamentalists. Those might seem like the most unlikely of bedfellows, but they’re all united by one thing: how much they hate America. And they all seem to get on remarkably well with one another, massive philosophical differences notwithstanding. I’m not making light of global terror threats, but this one does feel like a cheesy Hollywood version of a terror conspiracy, rather than anything organic.

I don't think it'll launch any careers...

Given the involvement of honest-to-goodness Navy SEALs in the project, it almost goes without saying that the movie isn’t in any way ambiguous about its characters. There’s no sense that anybody who fights demons must be wary, or that any of the characters are conflicted in any way about anything. There’s no drama or tension, no real suspense. It’s all so clean and so sanitary and so very perfectly structured that any real spark is entirely absent.

That said, I must concede that there were moments, fleeting moments, where you could see a hint of merit in the movie’s decision to use real combat veterans. As you might expect, these moments are the ones without dialogue, as we see the characters work in the field, sweeping for enemies and setting up ambushes. It’s little things, like the usage of a weight when boarding a boat from a helicopter, or catching a body as it falls into water. Sadly, these moments are few and far between, but they do hint at some interesting missed opportunities.

Too watered down?

Act of Valour is, sadly, a very forgettable action film. While it’s not terrible, it isn’t memorable or especially intriguing. It has the plot and structure of an enjoyable (if unremarkable) eighties action adventure, but with none of the character. On the other hand, it wastes a perfectly good opportunity for a raw and naturalistic approach to an action film by placing its real Navy SEALs in a decidedly unreal setting.

2 Responses

  1. Sounds (and looks) pretty terrible, but I’ll still be catching this on Saturday, if only because it looks like Call of Duty: The Movie! Thanks for the warning shots!

    • It’s not terrible. It’s just… not good. It is very much modelled on those videogames. It even seems to use the dying animation at one point. However, that all masks the fact that it’s a Chuck Norris movie without Chuck Norris. And I can quite enjoy those sorts of movies, but there’s a strange mish-mash of elements that don’t quite work here.

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