First things first: Navy SEALs are American heroes. The top-secret elite fighting force takes on a lot of dangerous missions, including killing Osama bin Laden in a daring raid, rescuing hostages, and performing tasks to which the general public isn’t and will never be privy. They’re trained in advance techniques and weaponry, and have honed such specialized skills that, in some respects, Act Of Valor’s introductory explanation, in which co-directors Mouse McCoy and Scott Waugh explain they had no choice but to cast actual SEALs in the film makes sense. After all, what actor could fake what SEALs do for a living? (And let’s leave Charlie Sheen and the 1990 movie Navy SEALs out of it.) But in other respects, the casting of active-duty Navy SEALs here makes no sense at all. Acting is a specialized skill too, albeit one less essential to national security, and the film’s SEAL stars—billed only by their first names to protect their identities—look about as comfortable in front of the camera as a pampered Hollywood star would look taking live enemy fire.
Act Of Valor began as a training film, and it’s best in the portions that still feel like one. One sequence focuses on the sometimes-fascinating details of what it takes to pull off a stealth raid. When a sniper takes out the guard of a drug lord’s lakeside compound, it’s a two-man operation: one to pull the trigger, and another to catch the body to avoid a telltale splash. Trouble is, the directors—a pair of stuntmen directing their first feature, and collectively known as the Bandito Brothers—don’t have much of a flair for staging such scenes, and even less of a grasp on how to shoot action once the fighting starts in earnest. Their handheld camerawork and frenetic editing makes it tough to figure out what’s going on; it’s all the chaos of a Michael Bay movie with none of the slickness. And while the team does have access to equipment and vehicles that might make Bay envious, they don’t apparently have access to, say, the sort of lighting equipment typically used in professional filmmaking. A middle-of-the-night parachute drop, for instance, might be thrilling if it didn’t look like a bunch of shadows rippling against a sea of blackness.
As for the story, it pits the SEALs against a narcotics kingpin working in league with a terrorist to smuggle suicide bombers across the Mexican border into the U.S., a plot that takes the heroes across the globe. It’s thin material, to say the least, and manipulative to boot, putting women, children, and a SEAL father-to-be in jeopardy in ways more about servicing cheap thrills than any larger point about the perilous state of the world in 2012. The film claims to be inspired by “real acts of valor,” and ends with a dedication to SEALs whose lives have been lost since 9/11. But is using their sacrifices as material for an action movie—and a bad one—that much of an honor?