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.

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.

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)