Somehow, it doesn't feel right to criticize the acting prowess of the active-duty Navy SEALs who make up the core cast of Act of Valor. They're bad actors, but they're no worse than, say, Michael Dudikoff or any of the other Z-listers who kept the action shelves well-stocked in '80s video stores. Which is fine, because absolutely no one will see this movie for its nuanced dialogue or strong performances. It's schmaltzy and trite when it's standing still and it occasionally veers too far into the realm of creepy propaganda, but once the bullets start flying—real ones, according to the film's press materials—Act of Valor is a solid action movie that should satisfy anyone willing to shell out their bucks to see it.
The plot is American paranoia at its best: Everyone with an accent is out to get us. After a syrupy introduction to globe-trotting SEAL Team 7, the action starts in earnest with the kidnapping of an undercover CIA operative in Costa Rica. The guys travel to Central America for a rescue mission, only to learn that the kidnapping is linked to a global plot to smuggle jihadist suicide bombers into the United States via tunnels guarded by Mexican drug cartels. The plan is masterminded by Cristo (Alex Veadov), a wealthy Chechen smuggler whose lair looks sort of like the Death Star, only with a sweatshop where nice-looking granny ladies sew high-tech suicide vests filled with explosives and hundreds of ceramic ball bearings. (Yes, we see the vests in action, and yes, it's spectacular.) Providing support in the pop-eyed zealotry department is Shabal (Jason Cottle), a Muslim terrorist bent on crushing the American economy. Holy crap! It could only be more terrifying to red-state America if it also involved married gay couples with abortion rays.
The movie is neatly divided into four distinct set pieces, each intended to showcase various SEAL specialties. SEAL is, of course, an acronym for sea, air, and land, and we get to see the guys do their thing in each environment. They jump out of airplanes, rappel onto boats, wade through swamps, deploy in full frogman gear from a nuclear submarine, and, of course, blow up loads of stuff and turn bad guys' heads into clouds of bloody vapor. The numerous shoot-outs, explosions, car chases, and boat chases finally culminate in a brutal fight with cartel soldiers and jihadists in an abandoned Mexican milk factory.
For the most part, the action sequences are thrilling and surprisingly suspenseful. The directors, a pair of ex-stuntmen who want people to refer to them as "the Bandito Brothers," occasionally rely too much on helmet-mounted cameras that give the fighting a silly, first-person-shooter feel, but when they pull back and let us see what's going on, it's clear that they know how to stage an action scene.
And the guys in front of the camera certainly know how to pull them off. They're so good at everything else that their stiff line readings hardly seem to matter. If anything, the SEALs deserve kudos for keeping straight faces when they have to say things like "He went Roman Polanski on my ass and disappeared." When directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh aren't asking them to do ridiculously complex actor things, like emote and say words, they're actually quite terrific.
As bloody and boisterous as the film is, though, cynics will have a tough time with it. Act of Valor is ridiculously sentimental; screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, who marched into similar territory as a cowriter on 300, tosses off one cliché after another: Women collapse into sobbing heaps when their men go off to battle, and guys throw themselves onto grenades to save their pals. It's no surprise that the project actually began several years ago, when the Navy needed to beef up its SEAL ranks to the tune of about 500 of the manliest men it could find.
If it began as a recruitment film, though, it didn't exactly end up as one. My main takeaway is that SEALs get shot in the face a lot, so I can't imagine anyone wanting to enlist after seeing it. It ends on a singularly somber (and shamelessly manipulative) note, with a funeral instead of a raucous homecoming. Flags aren't waved; they're folded and presented to tearful widows.
Ultimately, most viewers will get exactly what they want from Act of Valor. If you expect a violent shoot-'em-up with a clunky script, amateurish acting, and a blatant agenda, that's what you'll get. But if the film's main selling point makes you want to see it, you're in for a solid, technically accomplished, and unwaveringly patriotic action flick. Who knew the Navy could be so accommodating?