Act of Valor is a guilty pleasure of a movie romp whose exciting combat sequences and beautiful, diverse environmental shots do a mostly good job of covering for a plot that’s so thin that it becomes silly. Some tonal inconsistencies that pop up very late in the film are deeply problematic, but they’re infrequent enough that their overall impact will depend greatly on how much the individual viewer is willing to forgive.
The “plot,” such as it can be called one, is simplistic yet confusingly told. A smuggler and a jihadist want to target heavily populated U.S. areas and create an economic collapse for … some reason. The villains aren’t given any depth, and the soldiers have little in the way of individual characterization (Red Tails, of all things, seemed to have more distinction). My guess is that the viewer is meant to sympathize with them because they’re Americans and because they’re heroes–certainly a fair point–but not because they’re exceedingly complex individuals. Likewise the villains are such because they deliberately and unnecessarily target innocents–also a fair point to call them villains for doing so–but not because they have very complex motivations for their actions. They try to cover this up by doing several things at once all over the world.
The pacing of the opening of the movie is so fast as to be detrimental, as shots of a high-altitude, low-opening parachute jump suddenly shift to a scene in the Philippines, when a man draws a bunch of children toward an ice-cream truck (oh, you know this has to be legit) that naturally turns out to be a gigantic bomb. A U.S. ambassador dies in the process, and little else is known or said about the matter. This specific person doesn’t even retroactively play a role in later film events, and neither do the children. The explosion is well done, though.
Meanwhile, one of the SEALs, Lieutenant Rorke, is–wait for it–having a baby. The obligatory congratulations and “fun” moments are given, while untrustworthy people and places seem heavily telegraphed. This comes after–or before?–the film jumps to yet another location for some additional, disjointed character establishment: a man and woman, making jokes while playing Scrabble, quickly find their lives forever altered when he is shot point-blank by a conspirator’s henchman, and she is kidnapped and tortured (this is very brief but nonetheless bloody and unpleasant to watch).
The point is that while these various character stories seem to lead nowhere–which is essentially what happens–the action scenes themselves are very quickly shot and nicely edited. Some of the crazy camera tricks, such as a woman being rolled up into a carpet while the camera rolls with her, feel to their benefit like they wouldn’t be out of place in a Crank film.
The various SEAL members’ goodbyes to their friends and families feel sincere enough to be emotive, not goofy like most everything up to this point has been. One of the film’s most noticeable consistencies is that the music remains well done throughout, and it certainly adds to the emotion in scenes like these even if the movie relies way too hard on it. The plot, while still cliched and thin, is told quickly enough that in terms of small details, I repeatedly had to ask myself what on Earth was going on.
A plot to rescue the kidnapped Morales, while she is being pressed for information, begins with some pre-mission banter between SEALs that feels too clumsy and forced to actually relieve any stress or tension. The SEALs drop via parachute in what must be said to be a very impressive stunt scene in a movie full of them. As soon as the movie earns quite a bit of praise for that, however, the movie squanders it by forcing the viewer to listen to radio dialogue that sounds so horribly unbalanced as to become indecipherable without the television volume cranked up. Anything in the film that isn’t directly spoken in person seems to have this problem, such that I kept having to turn the volume up for dialogue and down for action sequences, and on rare occasions even traditional speech became hard to follow, subtitles or no.
In another series of quick shots, we have a neat little boat scene, complete with small scouting drones; we see Morales, who by this point has blood all over her but is otherwise in some sense “fine”; and some snipers, whose guns make little thwip sounds, are helping their other SEAL friends fight henchmen. There are some really neat first-person segments that look like a video game on autopilot, but even with the expected scenes of one or two SEALs getting shot here and there, the overall mood feels more geared toward mindless fun than conscientious storytelling, which really doesn’t make an appearance.
And for what the movie seems to want to be, that’s fine! Most of it is spent having an enjoyable if escapist good time, and the movie does it well. It certainly can’t be faulted for the way the combat scenes themselves are shot, nor for their frequency. If you just want to turn off your brain, there are plenty of cheap thrills here, including another really nice explosion from a car that gets hit by a rocket.
The chaotic exfiltration is not without its problems for the heroes, but a problem from earlier in the film reasserts itself when the movie fishes for audience emotion more through music than actual storytelling. Sometimes that “less is more; show, don’t tell” approach can work well, but by this point it really doesn’t.
The film then shifts to an extended set of dialogue exchanges between the villains, and the sheer eeeeeeeevilness of several of these had me laughing. What do these all add up to, and what are the bad guys planning? It’s not hard to guess, but actual reveals of story feel remarkably thin considering how much is said.
At this point the story becomes a globe-trotting adventure in several locations around the world at once for more frenetic and fun shootouts against cardboard henchmen. (I guess the SEALs aren’t technically invading if they don’t get caught? This isn’t discussed in the movie often enough to feel like it matters.) An underwater deployment scene set off the coast of Somalia is beautifully shot, however, and is one of the most impressive things in the whole movie. The combat, while highly enjoyable in its own right, rarely creates tension when the villains are generally poorly armed (some are even wearing tank tops), and at some point I honestly started feeling some pity for them simply because of the ridiculous odds against them.
Probably the most interesting scene of actual storytelling in the film is when one major enemy is caught and interrogated, and the style of the person questioning him is remarkably cool and collected–but unrelenting. As far as I can remember, however, the session avoids the ethical discussion of torture entirely by not employing it in the first place.
Later on a plot device helps the battle atmosphere to feel much more tense, essentially because the various sides feel more ‘balanced,’ and indeed the movie earns its title an hour and a half in, complete with the slow motion, dramatic music, and inaudible talking that I’ve come to expect from having watched a war movie before. It’s at this point, however, that the movie’s overall mood becomes more serious and never lets up, which actually causes a lot of issues.
The actual villain confrontation seems to wrap up so abruptly as to not have much of an ending, but the bigger problem is that the movie’s newfound desire to be taken completely seriously, makes the fun-filled earlier sections of the movie feel so unconcerned by comparison as to become insulting. All of a sudden death is treated like a real tragedy: even when injuries against heroes popped up earlier in the film, they seemed to be there more for the sake of genre obligation than for an actual mood shift.
When the movie sheds its escapist clothes, it asks the fallen heroes to be given a dignity (that they certainly admittedly deserve) that the bad guys of the film are never offered, even considering the evil of their deeds. Even considering the basis in reality of many of these tragedies, the story surrounding them is so bland that their use honestly feels insulting in a movie that is otherwise presented as a brainless turkey shoot of absurdist fun.
It’s difficult to say whether the first hour and a half of Act of Valor justifies the last ten minutes, which feel like they belong in a different movie, or vice versa. The shift in what the movie wants to be and how it wants to be treated seems so inconsistent that I’d honestly recommend that viewers watching for base entertainment stop the movie immediately after the last fight ends, because everything the movie says and does after that point, which would seem noble and touching if the rest of the film up until then had been the same, seems to draw more condemnation on the movie and its appropriate-in-a-certain-mindset ethos than on its villains.
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