Just like The Artist, there is one important fact moviegoers should know before watching Act of Valor. With The Artist, you had to know you were going to be watching a silent film. With Act of Valor, you have to know you are watching a film performed by actual, active-duty Navy SEALs.
This is not your typical action film. That does not mean it is excellent, but it is definitely an uncynical breath of fresh air.
Judging by the boffo box office action, typical moviegoers last weekend understood what they were watching better than the "top" professional film critics.
Act of Valor follows an elite unit in a year-long series of missions that tie together one ugly scenario. An anti-American jihadist calling himself Abu (Jason Cottle) has joined forces with a worldwide drug smuggler, Christo (Alex Veadov). The ultimate plan is to use the smuggling corridors to sneak suicide bombers into the United States.
The SEALs become involved when a CIA operative (Roselyn Sanchez) is kidnapped and tortured, with the bad guys trying to find out what she knows about Christo's activities. The team is sent into the Central American jungle to get her out.
Later, they spy on a meeting at an African landing field, commandeer a yacht at sea and infiltrate a Mexican border town controlled by a violent drug cartel. We get to see them leaping out of airplanes, engaging in high-speed gun battles, sharp-shooting, silently infiltrating targets, SCUBA diving and just generally showing off their unequaled training.
If that's what you expect from a movie about the SEALs, you will be satisfied.
There are a handful of familiar faces, but the SEAL "actors" remain anonymous. And some parts of the individual missions are based on actual activities.
The action is outstanding, and we get enough of a glance at home life to understand what they and their families sacrifice. The film is dedicated to the long list of SEALs who have lost their lives in action since 9/11.
At various points, the plot pits the SEALs against almost all of our traditional enemies - Eastern European crime bosses, Latin American drug runners, radical Muslims. Cliché'-ed but effective.
In the middle the narrative gets unnecessarily weighed down and has trouble explaining the route from point A to point B, and that is a storyboarding problem by the directors, Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh. Shane Hurlbut's cinematography is often extraordinary, though there is a little too much of the first-person point-of-view angles. This is not supposed to be a video game, after all.
The SEALs don't need a movie to prove their heroics to the American public, but the Navy will be using portions of the film for recruitment and training.
For all of the special effects, the creators of Act of Valor were obviously aiming for an un-Hollywood depiction of the SEALs. In action, they are crisp and professional. Relating to each other, they are low-key and dry. The understanding of the dangers attached to what they do is inherent and not turned into pre-mission soliloquies or post-mission ruminations. There is a little banter to settle nerves but no smart-aleck back-and-forth smack-talk infesting the action.
Film critics, clearly unsure of what to do with this movie, got tangled up in questions of whether the SEALs could act or if the screenplay was as a slick as a glossy Hollywood package should be. One, in fact, actually complained that the SEALs " don't speak in colorful dialogue."
If that is exactly what you do not want to see in a movie about the SEALs, you will be satisfied.