Act of Valor, a movie with no major stars made for $12 million, shocked everyone in Hollywood by earning $24.5 million its first weekend. Why? Simple. It advertises itself as “starring active duty Navy SEALs,” and the commercials make it look like a full-length version of one of those action-packed military recruitment commercials that run during football games. Sometimes there is truth in advertising, because that’s exactly what Act of Valor is, for good and ill. Come on; who wouldn’t want to give it a shot?
Act of Valor is set up like an old-time world-hopping melodrama, bouncing from Russia to Costa Rica to the Philippines to the South Seas to the Mexican border. And for its first five minutes, as a placid schoolyard in Manila is quietly set upon by terrorists in a tinkly ice-cream van, the movie I fear it most resembles is Team America: World Police, the hilariously filthy 2004 puppet show parody of just such fare by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park. (In Team America, the city is Paris, and a little boy walks across the street singing “Frère Jacques.”)
The plot has to do with cooperation between a Russian-Jewish arms smuggler, a Chechen jihadist, and a Mexican drug cartel, and it has its Team America aspects as well. The movie was written by the guy who cowrote 300, the Spartans-at-Thermopylae live-action semi-cartoon, and it has that massive hit’s sledgehammer subtlety.
But whenever the SEALs are on camera, doing their thing, playing fictional SEALs, Act of Valor is pretty thrilling. Not surprisingly, these almost unimaginably physically accomplished men are amazing camera subjects. Even less surprisingly, they’re not much in the performing department; the stoicism and emotional reserve their work requires of them are pretty much the polar opposite of what acting requires. The movie tries to introduce them to us with video-game-like dossiers that pop up on one side of the screen, but their character names are as unimportant as their characteristics are interchangeable. One of them is a surfer; another likes Mondrian paintings; a third has a beard; they all talk and sound alike.
They’re just SEALs, that’s all, and they’re giving us a sense of what they are called upon to do, and just watching them even in these highly overdramatic and fictionalized circumstances feels like we’re being given some kind of gift. Especially after the heroics of SEAL Team Six last year.
We also get an idea from the movie, which was made with extensive cooperation from the Navy, what our soon-to-be-decimated military budget is buying us. That allows throwaway shots of great beauty and originality (the movie is sensationally well photographed by Shane Hurlbut); an offhand scene of a SEAL talking on a cell phone to his wife on the active runway of an aircraft carrier while a plane is taking off is jaw-dropping.
That cooperation was canny, for like Top Gun a quarter-century ago, Act of Valor is an unashamed celebration of American martial know-how that will not only inspire teenagers but also instill in its viewers a renewed sense of awe for what the U.S. military is capable of doing. There are tiny drones and tablet computers used as GPS devices in jungles; mini-subs and machine guns are also flashlights and other stuff. All of this does succeed in creating real dramatic tension.
The SEALs are called upon to rescue a captured CIA agent from some bad guys, and when they do so, in a brilliantly rendered action sequence by directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, the audience feels some of the same gratitude the CIA agent feels.
Act of Valor is, therefore, beyond criticism in a sense. It’s not a good movie, if by “good movie” you mean that it tells a credible story well with skilled acting, strong dialogue, and well-developed characters. But it is watchable, gripping, and more memorable than many far more accomplished films.
And consider this: In its first weekend, Act of Valor grossed more at the box office than The Hurt Locker, which deservedly won the Best Picture Oscar for 2009, made during its entire theatrical run. Perhaps Americans do like movies about warriors—so long as the warriors are portrayed unambiguously as heroes.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.