Act of Valour earns its stripes
It would be tempting to label Act of Valour (or Valor, as the Yanks would say) as Call of Duty: Modern Cinema, and while there is no denying that this film has almost certainly been green-lit of the back of the success such video games have achieved, the war genre is no stranger to Hollywood. What sets Act of Valour apart is how authentically it is presented; a trait more commonly associated with aforementioned video games than summer blockbusters. Much of that fact owes to the Navy SEALs in the film being portrayed by actual Navy SEALs.
Yes, for nearly two hours, a group of non-actors pretend to hunt down international terrorists, tying the Taliban, Chechen rebels and Mexican drug cartels neatly together. It certainly sounds like a recipe for disaster. So it comes as a considerable shock to see that it actually works. Equally as surprising is the fact that Act of Valour isn’t the chest thumping, jingoistic bravado one would rightfully expect going in. Sure, there is a sense of the SEALs showing off some of their impressive firepower and ninja-like tactics that, in turn, sends a message that these guys should not be effed with. However, the moral of the story here is sacrifice and protecting one’s country and family. There’s no suggestion here that such commitment is strictly American in nature. Team America these guys are not. Quite frankly, countless headshots aside, it’s a relief to see, which likely is at least part of the point. Now whether or not that, in and of itself, is propaganda is a cyclical debate for another time.
As SEAL Team 7 sets out to rescue a captured CIA operative and attempts to prevent a terrorist attack on American soil, the lingo and jargon flies fast and heavy. What the hell are they talking about? Only the experts know, but the SEALs quick and stealthy actions speak louder than words anyway. It’s refreshing to see the execution of these missions not being dumbed-down, even if the plot may seem a bit silly. Plus, directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh give the proceedings a slick presentation featuring helicopters airlifting attacks boats, aircraft carriers and submarines. Saddled with only a $15 million dollar budget, it’s impossible to accuse Act of Valour of looking cheap. Director of photography Shane Hurlbut applies several different approaches to filming the action. While the first person point of view definitely brings on the COD vibe, it also accomplishes the same goal: to put the viewer in the midst of the action. Other techniques, such as the carpet roll are interesting, at the very least. As for the acting, well, that’s where things gets a bit ropey. With no one of any name value, Act of Valour gains points by not having a recognisable Hollywood star running around killin’ terrorists or plotting to blow up the entire world, but the perils of casting non-actors in lead roles are obvious. That the two central SEAL characters Lt Engle and CPO Nolan have a handful of wooden exchanges should surprise no one. It’s definitely a give and take trade-off, but all things considered, it doesn’t detract from Act of Valour too greatly.
Against the odds, Act of Valour succeeds in delivering an entertaining, realistic (and quite violent) adventure. It’s imperfect fun that’s surprisingly low on the extolling of America’s virtues. Whether the built-in audience of millions of Call of Duty fans will be satisfied with the passive role of viewer remains to be seen. However, regardless of final domestic and international box-office totals, Act of Valour has already over-achieved through being a far better film than anyone would have expected. 8/10