Home Video Hovel- Act of Valor, by Aaron Pinkston
Upon first viewing of the trailer for Act of Valor, I have to admit, I was a bit curious. With opening text promising real, active duty Navy Seals with real Navy missions and tactics, the film seemed like it could be as real as it gets. The feeling didn’t last too long, as the trailer stretched out to reveal itself incredibly jingoistic (shocking!), with lines like “They’re going to hit us at home,” appealing to a sector of red-blooded war hawk American that I just don’t jive with. I was also offended as a war film fan, as seemingly every cliche is packed into the two minute spot. Though I didn’t spend my time and money seeing Act of Valor in theaters, I decided to check out the Blu-Ray — specifically because of the special features, including a director’s commentary that would hopefully feed my curiosity on the film’s innovative premise and construction.
As anticipated, Act of Valor is much more successful as segments than as a complete film. Scenes like the opening sequence, depicting an assassination bombing in the Philippines, are well shot and edited, gripping and fluent. The action scenes definitely take inspiration from the works of Paul Greengrass, with quick cuts and tight shots — they are dizzying and disorienting in the most wonderful ways. Many of the “Seals at work” sequences involve POV, giving the look of a first-person shooter video game, which has a mixed result — the filmmakers were undoubtedly looking to put the audience in the position of a Navy Seal, but it doesn’t really do much more than Call of Duty. Being a two hour video game cut-scene isn’t something that typically bothers me, but if you’re allergic to this typically, the action scenes probably won’t be effective. I greatly appreciate the fact that it doesn’t skimp on the violence. This could easily have been made PG-13 and mass marketed to young boys with military fetishes, but it is crudely bloody when it needs to be.
Still, the film drags and becomes unbalanced. Too much effort is made to be a generic terrorist war film with scenes of baddies preparing their plot (at least they were Russian and not Muslim). A crucial interrogation scene between a Navy Captain and the head baddie falls flat dramatically while laying it on thick, setting up a terrorist attack that will make 9/11 “look like a walk in the park.” What could have been an extremely interesting exercise on military technique and realism becomes thoroughly run-of-the-mill. The film tries to develop individual characters, presumably modelled after the lives of the actual Seals, but they come off nothing more than standard-issue cliche. Over-serious, buzz word heavy narration throughout the film doesn’t do the story any favors.
It could have been an interesting choice to film the scenes of the Seals with their families, during briefings, etc. in a documentary style, but the filmmakers decided to go for slick work — do we really need the camera to whirl around a military wife, on the phone, telling her husband to be safe? With the non-professional actors being staged and saying obviously written lines (albeit in situations they most likely have been through), they feel too blocked, set up. Instead of Seals being Seals, you have Seals being actors playing Seals. Some of the Seals are charismatic or natural enough to work on camera, but they often feel like they know they are being filmed for a big budget Hollywood movie. A less invasive style of filmmaking could have prevented the incredibly stale film we got. When given more to do in their scenes of action, they don’t have this trouble.
The Blu-Ray is loaded (the slipcover actually uses the term “fully loaded”) with special features, a huge selling point. Front and center is the director’s commentary, which had me much more excited than the film — I won’t lie, I considered only watching the film with the commentary, but I wouldn’t play you like that. As a concession, I’ve skipped the Keith Urban music video “For You” and it’s making-of featurette. If you’re a fan of Keith Urban, I’m sure you’ll just love it.
Directors Scott Waugh and Mike “Mouse” McCoy are affable and intelligent, if not incredibly exciting while talking about their film. I was interested in many of their directing choices and how this movie came together, but unfortunately, their conversation never gets too technical. Overall, they stay focused on telling anecdotes from behind the lines and keeping things pretty basic — easy-going, but not always insightful. One aspect of the commentary that works really well is comprehending the thoroughness of the authenticity of the missions and tactics. During the big setpieces, they provide step-by-step meaning to each point of action.
There are nine minutes of deleted scenes, which focus a little more on the groups’ daily routines, personalities and backstories, with a lighter tone. The sentiment could have helped the film gel a little, but the scenes are definitely cut-worthy. Seeing a group of Seals sitting around, joshing with each other in the most PG-saccharine way isn’t as realistic, especially coupled with the violent action scenes. Other deleted scenes focus on the main antagonist, Christo, a character that was never able to click with me.
Each of the Navy Seals in the film are given interviews, jammed together into a 30-minute brick. They are heavily edited and don’t go into great psychological depth. It is nice, though, to see these guys a little more relaxed, talking about why they chose to be Seals. Still, tough to watch in one sitting without losing interest pretty quickly.
Four short making-of featurettes round out the Act of Valor Blu-Ray, offering a little more insight to the production, the interesting challenges to shooting with active duty military, and the casting of the Seals. One of the most amazing nuggets found here is the film used only real bullets during the action scenes, which, looking back at these scenes with this knowledge, definitely makes them more effective. It may not be a wholly satisfying film, but these featurettes get to the heart of why I was curious about this film, qualifying its groundbreaking nature and showcasing just how difficult it was to make.