‘Act of Valor’ Review

Published 3 years ago by , Updated November 27th, 2014 at 3:31 pm,

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Moviegoers expecting a fully-formed storyline with compelling character drama may ultimately be underwhelmed by the very moments that other members in the audience will find most compelling.

In an age when Call of Duty games can generate over $1 billion in sales in less than one month, it’s safe to say that military combat simulation represents big business. However, while plenty of video games and Hollywood films have attempted to communicate the horrors of the battlefield, very few fiction projects have ever gone quite so far as Act of Valor, the film by co-directors, Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh.

With a relatively modest budget, the filmmaking team enlisted a batch of active-duty Navy SEALs to create one of the most gritty and grounded military operation films ever conceived. Not only are the leading men in Act of Valor actual servicemen, the directors also employed a number of unconventional production techniques – including live ammunition and explosives. However, is the actual film – aside from all the realistic combat sequences and compelling production choices – an enjoyable and high-octane experience?

Unfortunately, while Act of Valor succeeds as a love letter to servicemen, military families, and anyone who has ever sacrificed for the good of their country, the film itself, from a cinematic standpoint, is a disjointed mishmash of gripping behind-the-scenes details and compelling combat sequences, paired with awkward performances and a generic (as well as jumbled) terrorist storyline. There’s absolutely no doubt that moviegoers who have been touched by military service in one way or another will likely connect with the characters and situations portrayed in the film; however, for film fans and cinephiles looking for a gritty military ops movie, there are a number of shortcomings that will undermine the Act of Valor‘s impact.

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Active-duty Navy SEALs in ‘Act of Valor’

The story follows a team of Navy SEALs on a rescue mission – one that quickly evolves into a multifaceted, globe-trotting operation to stop Islamic extremists from infiltrating U.S. borders and enacting a string of devastating terrorist attacks in a number of America’s most populated cities. It’s a thin but serviceable plot that’s designed to put forth one gripping set-piece after another (infiltration, reconnaissance, interrogation, etc.) but hardly develops the film’s characters. The overarching extremist threat isn’t explored in any more depth than basic “good versus evil” cliches and viewers are never privy to the terrorist leader’s larger motivations, i.e. anything more nuanced than “America is evil” rhetoric.

That said, while the actual storyline is mostly underwhelming and locked into a relatively predictable plot progression, it does (as mentioned) make room for some truly slick combat scenarios that take advantage of the active-duty SEALs’ training and battlefield experience. There’s an authority to the combat sequences (via engrossing frontline action) that few military films have been able to capture in recent memory (with the exception of a few projects such as Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down). As an example, phase 1 of the SEALs’ extended mission sees the team infiltrating an enemy compound – and features a number of unique flourishes that ground the experience and offer some genuinely tense as well as cathartic mid-fight moments.

If only the character moments were as effective as the visceral combat scenarios. The plot spends a lot of time centered around two Navy SEAL squad mates and best friends –  showcasing the “true life” experiences servicemen endure as well as their “acts of valor” on the battlefield. However, in their effort to bring authenticity to the proceedings by using actual SEALs, McCoy and Waugh ultimately undermine the success of the realistic and gritty combat sequences with stilted dialogue and stiff performances from their lead actors. It’s obviously a touchy subject – since these are real people who have (and continue to) risk their lives for their country; however, more experienced actors could have ultimately provided a better foundation for the film’s onscreen emotional core.

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Navy SEAL and leading-man Engel leaves home

As a result, a number of the movie’s would-be character revelations come across as somewhat forced and flat-out cheesy – though, again, viewers who have an external investment in the characters (via their own experiences) will likely find these exchanges to be some of the more powerful moments in the film, even if they aren’t delivered in an Oscar-worthy monologue. In terms of making an all-around accessible and captivating fiction film experience, it’s hard to understand why the directors didn’t employ the best of both worlds: use the SEALs to ground the action sequences and bring in a few professional actors to make the lead character moments really sing.

Ultimately, the film’s greatest asset, the real life Navy SEALs (and their insight), create a strange mix of successes and failures that at times enhance the experience and on other occasions don’t translate very well from reality to film. Much like the acting, there are moments where the filmmakers overindulged in reality and undermined immersion – offering a few flat-out all too “convenient” moments that probably have occurred on the battlefield (one involving a close-range RPG, especially), but come across as emotionally manipulative when viewed as part of a manufactured film project. Similarly, while the film’s thin video game-esque storyline plays out like a mission logbook, and showcases the various aspects of military ops, it never bothers to develop the characters beyond anything but basic stereotypes – meaning that even though the story is on the surface realistic, there’s very little for certain portions of the audience to connect with in the moment or ponder once the credits roll.

It’s easy to recommend Act of Valor to military enthusiasts and servicemen, who will no doubt see themselves in the characters on screen, and action fans will also find plenty to like in the movie’s various combat sequences. However, moviegoers expecting a fully-formed storyline with compelling character drama may ultimately be underwhelmed by the very moments that other members in the audience will find most compelling. As a result, the overall response to Act of Valor is likely to spark one of the most divisive movie conversations of 2012.

If you’re still on the fence about Act of Valor, check out the trailer below:


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Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick - and let us know what you thought of the film below.

Act of Valor is rated R for strong violence, including some torture, and for language. Now playing in theaters.

Our Rating:

2.5 out of 5
(Fairly Good)

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106 Comments - Comments are closed.

  1. one last rant, 10 to 1 the use of non conventional villans in this film was done to drastically reduce the chance of a counter propaganda campaign that could have been done if they were running around the middle east the entire time. That is the reason they made the enemy so outlandish. It takes away the enemies ability to use the film. Another win!

  2. I agree with most of your review. However, one thing not mentioned, I guess only a vet or team member may know, is that the acts of valor depicted were actual situations from real life events. Example: CMH Honoree Mike Monsoor, jumped on a grenade to save team members. Another is a SEAL having taken multiple near fatal rounds and still kills all the bad guys. No the movie does not explain this in detail and after reading reviews I wish that they had. I have also heard this was a recruitment film. SEALS don’t need a recruitment film. There are plenty of billy badasses that attempt to get in but the failure rate is extremely high. Damn few make it. I was asked in Navy bootcamp, how many of you want to be UDT/SEALS? We were told John Wayne wasn’t in our group, you are going to be sailors. A sailor is exactly what I was for 4 years, BT2 and a Vietnam Vet. All I said at the end of this movie was HooYah. Remember one of the actors name appears in the list of those who paid the ultimate price for his continued service after the making of this movie.

  3. God, this is so stupid. all these comments about how the movie was good are all judging it from a moral/ethical standpoint. it’s a movie, therefore it should be judged as a movie. As a movie, it was bad….. really bad. I don’t care if you support the troops or want to pay your respects, that doesn’t mean the movie is good. Even if it honors the troops, that doesn’t make it not suck. I love and support our troops too, but that doesn’t make me feel that this is a good movie.

    • Yeah ok we will just ignore the way things really look or how things really happen when making an authentic movie so WR can like it better. This is whats hard about making realistic movies. Joe retard public likes the fake suspend reality scenario better!

        • I never said ANYTHING about the realism of the movie. I simply said that just because it has really navy seals doesn’t make it a good movie. Yea, i liked how it celebrated our troops, but as a movie it sucked.

    • Let’s move to extract this Reaper.

      God had nothing to do with stupid.

  4. This is one of the most accurate reviews I have ever read. I just saw this movie and while the action scenes were fantastic, and it was really great to see actual navy seals, it is apparent that these are not indeed trained actors, but hey real actors couldn’t really do what the navy seals do either! And the storyline is very generic and predictable and the dialogue is quite stiff making it harder to connect to the characters. However I felt this film was still worth the ticket price, just for the realistic and awesome action scenes.

  5. This is a movie about warriors, with warriors. It tracks the typical deployment cycle of some of our most hardened men that defend us.
    Yes, the real SEALs are not BRAD Pitts, and the plot is not warm fuzzy – oriented.
    The common reviewer flaw I read, is that they don’t get the concept of “PUT IT IN A BOX” (i.e. emotions) and continue downrange. This is their SPECWAR ETHOS, they have shared this rare martial attitude with us common people who can wear our hearts on a sleeve. – They have chosen NOT to do that outside their own. Simple. Missed. Too sad…
    A GREAT MOVIE WITH NO PROMOTIONAL PRODUCTS OR “OUTTAKES” THANKS TO YOU FEW FREE MEN WHO CARRY US THROUGH – And the Crew who gave us this followed this undeniable truth very well.

    • my dad is in this movie (senior chief auto miller) and i thank you for writing this comment

      • Relay to your dad, THANK YOU! for his continued service and for giving theatre goers a real peek into his world. God bless you and your family.

  6. Actually, I thought “Senior” was pretty bad ass and I loved his dialogue with Cristos (Crisco?) on the boat. And Cristos and Salaam had pretty good chemistry, too, tho I felt that scene was cut a little short.

    That said, I was still pulling for Chief to pull thru Final Stand. Been there, I usually don’t make it.

    • The interrogation scene between Sr. Chief and Cristo was hilarious. Immediately the first thing he does was make him feel unimportant. “Hello, my name is Auto, and you are?” LMAO, I laughed at that, and him calling him Crisco was classic…

  7. It’s an interesting concept, but it lacks a integral part of the usual cinamatic concept, which is fiction. People like fiction to be fiction. I wouldn’t want Terminators or Aliens(as portrayed in the Ridley Scott franchise) to exist in real life. To me, stuff like that is only cool when it’s fictitious. It might be that I come from a military family, but it doesn’t work for me that soldiers make a,-90′s esque, war movie about “how cool it is to blow sh*t up. There’s nothing cool about real warfare, and I bet these soldiers know it better than most of us, so how is this legit?

  8. The scenes where the SEALs (Operators) are leaving their families are awkward like the scenes in real life. Military families deal with this every day in the real world. The men can’t access their emotions and the women are often trying to be “strong” for their men and the kids. Hiding emotions and being awkward while leaving is real and PSTD is part of this and happens to every serviceman. BUT the operators are the strongest men out there and their wives know this and marriages are tough on both sides in the teams. Gibson in Once we were Soldiers comes close but still….

    I find most actors to be shallow and inexperienced in the roles they play. Were the emotional scenes well acted? Not by Hollywood standards but having seen a few real scenes where servicemen or other high risk workers had to leave home; the awkwardness you see is actually closer to the real truth than all the “well acted” tear jerking scenes out of Hollywood.

    The secret to many reviews of Act of Valor is that they can’t find much to criticize in the movies main intent and scenes. They have a failing industry to protect. This film is killing the expensive competition. Look at the ratio of cost to benefit for Act of Valor and compare it to most of the lame “professional” competition.

    The Oscars just concluded proves that Hollywood has run out of gas. To give Streep an Oscar for lifetime achievement would be wonderful but not for a lame PC hack job on a great leader of Britain. The “professionals” reviews of Act of Valor and her Oscar say more about the political make up of Hollywood than anything else.

  9. I loved this movie. Granted the acting did not meet the expectations of traditional Hollywood critics, but that is the movie’s appeal. SEALS (as well as others in the military) do not wear emotion on their sleeve. These men volunteer to be the very tip of the spear and endure relative hell to be given that privilege (note that no soft Hollywood type is capable of understanding the privilege part). They condition themselves to take mind numbing stress, channel it, and overcome any obsticale in the way of doing what is needed. That’s why people looking for soldiers who emote well will be disappointed in the acting. It is too real. I will admit I wanted to see more of the unit bonding that goes on pre deployment so I would be more invested in each SEAL, but that would probably would have made the movie a mini series.

    Otherwise, I was thoroughly enthralled in watching SEALS put gritty, professional, deadly determination up some bad guys collective backsides. To add to the cool factor, I read that some of the scenes were live fire. The yacht scene was an actual training exercise where the production company offered a yacht for the SEALS to take down. I was also gratified to see the writers pay tribute to Mike Mansoor. Can’t wait for a sequel (maybe the 170th SOAR can get in on the action).

  10. This movie is great! Having said that, I will agree with the reviewer that SEALs are not great actors and that as a fiction movie, the lack of solid dialog delivery may fall a bit flat. BUT: while a suspension of disbelief may be a bit difficult for some movie goers, this is film that does not require one to voluntarily suspend disbelief, as it can be believed, as it is based on REAL encounters, fictionalized through compilation. If you want the most emotionally invested film experience from this, it might be a good idea to start by recalling any service member you may know, and hearing in the rather dry-ly delivered, but extremely accurate dialog in that voice. As was already pointed out, a good look at the names that precede the end credits and the stark realization that these are actual SEALs that have given, as Lincoln wrote, the last full measure of devotion, may help to invest you a second time through.
    I agree with the reviewer, if you are looking for typical Hollywood action, drama or blockbuster Oscar performances, this isn’t the film for you. If you are a looking for an entertaining look at “The real deal” or you are a service member or former service member wishing someone would just “get it right,” then this is a real treat. As much as I would have enjoyed seeing Bruce Willis or Will Smith smash and trash the bad guys, if the trade is watching real American Heroes depict real “acts of valor,” it’s well worth the trade.
    For those brave men who gave their time and talent to this film, I say, don’t sweat the acting reviews, the work you do everyday is what really counts, and as most here have said in their own ways, THANK YOU! As a former US Army soldier(Hooah), it (almost physically) hurts to say this, but well done and HooYa!

  11. Says the guy that I bet is too much of a p*ssy to say this in front of a real Navy SEAL… Hey, the brave men and women in the military don’t need an ego boost, you illiterate retard. They already know they are more badass than you can ever dream of being, so go back to your mother’s basement and keep these useless commments to yourself. Thanks.

    • @ Ken J, this movie does suck! And yes it is an ego boost for the military. You are going to deny that? Pffft! The soldiers of today are not the patriots of waorld war 2. Real soldiers. Most men and woman join just cause they need money or don’t know what to do with their life, or just want to piss off there parents.

      • Ego boost? Sure. The men of WWII, absolutely real soldiers that faced unreal challenges. The rest of the comment is off target. Having known many combat troops and a few SEALS, and having read a lot of military history from revolutionary war to current conflicts, I can say that our current combat troops are, for the most part, hard chargers. The SEALS are an especially gritty bunch. They volunteer to be SEALS because they want to be up front taking the fight to the enemy. In a purely cinematic realm, more of an emtional display would have been nice, but that would not be in character for a SEAL. The ones I know, and the ones I have read about, all do not express much outward emotion (certainly not doubt, fear, or trepidation, although I am sure they grapple with the fellings). Why do you think the divorce rate is so high for SEALS? They have intense commitment to each other and the missions they are tasked to do. They will lay it on the line without flinching. This movie puts that realism on display. The reason you miss the appeal of the movie is that you haven’t learned enough about these men and what they sacrifice for us.

    • Ah crap, the comment I replied to got deleted, now it looks like I’m talking to myself, lol. :-D

  12. I would rather watch Black Hawk Down. I watched this in theatres….. There is nothing good about this movie.

  13. The acting was pretty terrible.

  14. Hollywood sees this movie succeeding and is having a fit.

    One old friend of mine is a news photographer from back in the day who saw it all. He says most writers will walk a mile around the exciting truth to concoct a boring lie. All in the name of proving they are “creative and artists.”