I’ll say this much about Act of Valor: It’s the closest you can come to experiencing a military mission from the perspective of a Navy SEAL without actually enlisting.
Co-directors Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh – collectively known as The Bandito Brothers – should appreciate that compliment, as authenticity is the name of their game. If you know anything about Act of Valor going into the theater, it’s that McCoy and Waugh opted for actual SEALs over trained actors, trading polished screen performances for truth on the battlefield. In a recorded introduction that played before our Valor screening, the filmmakers explained that it was their intent to “put the audience in the boots” of the men and women who fight on behalf of our great nation.
And do you know what? The trick works. The presence of certified soldiers in key roles brings Valor an unquestionable realism, even as it relies on all of the overused clichés of the military-thriller genre. For whatever reason, these storytelling crutches don’t feel like predictable shortcuts in the hands of the brave warriors. They feel like credible accounts of what would happen behind enemy lines.
Outside of the use of actual Navy SEALs, however, Valor doesn’t show too much beyond what we’ve already seen in previous, like-minded efforts – particularly if you happen to play a lot of the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare video game franchise, from which McCoy, Waugh and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad liberally borrow. Here, as in the game, a close-knit brotherhood of highly skilled SEALs infiltrates hostile environments to prevent international threats against our country. The opening mission for the film’s fictional squad involves the retrieval of a kidnapped CIA agent named Roselyn Sanchez. But Intel acquired during that deadly mission unearths a larger threat in the form of Christo (Alex Veadov), a cocaine and weapons dealer planning to suicide-bomb key U.S. cities with a cutting-edge detonator
The plot may be routine, but the production values are not. McCoy and Waugh maneuver through their tactical missions with a precision that amplifies the film’s urgency. Valor is slick and stylish but rarely gaudy. It’s cruel and sometimes intensely violent, but it doesn’t glorify the carnage that comes with war. And while the directors sometimes are guilty of slipping into obvious video-game visuals – from first-person-shooter camera angles to bright-green night vision cinematography by the talented Shane Hurlbut – the act in service of a tense military plot that escalates its dangers the way James Bond stories used to do with ease.
For all of its movie-making magic, however, the selling point of Valor remains the men who once risked their lives for our safety and now replicate those actions for our entertainment. It can’t be emphasized enough how credible the war-movie clichés appear when conducted by men and women who likely encountered some of these scenarios in real life. The knock against jingoistic fare like Valor is that they work better as recruitment tools for the branches of service in question than they do as popcorn entertainment for the masses. Not the case for McCoy and Waugh’s film. For when the Navy SEALs raise a glass prior to an important mission and offer a toast to “those like us, damn few,” I wholeheartedly believe them. And I’m thankful for the few that are still out there protecting us to this day.