The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, March 5, 2012

Act of Valor

Released two weeks ago to big business in theaters, 2012's Act of Valor started off as anything but a highly successful major release. From director/producer duo Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, the movie in its original incarnation was intended as a promotional video for the Navy SEALs. Having filmed actual SEALs in training and action, the duo changed their focus, instead making a feature-length movie devoted to the story of the SEALs. 

When the trailer first was released last fall, the buzz was about the casting, or more specifically, the lack of casting. Playing the movie SEALs are active duty Navy SEALs, playing variations on themselves. In terms of originality alone, this movie gets points. It makes writing a review somewhat difficult -- not too many names listed, as in none -- for the SEAL team, but the movie on its own stands alone. It has its flaws because SEALs do what they do for a reason. In other words, they're not actors. But as an action film honoring one of the armed forces most capable forces, it succeeds.

Preparing for their next deployment, a Navy SEAL team headed by Roarke and Dave ready their seven-man team for whatever awaits them. To a man, they have years of experience and extensive training that makes them the best in the world at what they do. Their first mission presents itself; the rescue of a CIA agent (Roselyn Sanchez) kidnapped by drug/gun smugglers in the Philippines. The mission is a success if a bloody one, but the team finds intelligence linking the smuggles to an extremist terrorist group. The evidence suggest a terrorist attack is being prepared and is close to being finish, an attack on U.S. soil that threatens millions of lives. Roarke and Dave's team must do whatever is possible to eliminate the entire terrorist cell before the attacks can be unleashed.

Meaning this in the most positive sense possible, 'Valor' is a propaganda film. It's a good propaganda film, but nonetheless it is what it is. It honors the Navy SEALs as the heroes they are, accomplishing missions that help save thousands of lives while putting their own lives on the line with each developing mission. 'Valor' has an authentic feel that comes from filming with the support of the SEALs. The uniforms, the weapons, the equipment, the strategy, all of it is as real as it gets. This isn't a story interested in personal background, character development, or a hard-hitting message. There are good guys and there are bad guys. The good guys? They're going to lay it all on the line to eliminate those bad guys.

So the cast description won't have any actual names for the SEALs, but 'Valor' is at its heart a 'men on a mission' movie. Roarke and Dave are the leaders of the 7-man team, both combat veterans and highly experienced soldiers. Roarke is expecting a child and comes from a military family, his grandfather killed in the closing days of WWII. Dave is his right-hand man and closest friend, a bond developing between the men and among the team as they survive one horrific mission after another. The rest of the team includes the sniper from the Mojave desert, the expert interrogator, the 30-year old who grew up among gangs in Los Angeles, the quiet, humble soldier, and so on. Stock characters you've seen before in war movies -- regardless the war -- before and will almost certainly see again. Roarke and Dave are the only two even given dialogue scenes having nothing to do with the combat missions. Would it have been a better movie with even a little character development? Probably so, but that would have taken away from the very pointed story intended by McCoy and Waugh.

Now casting characters in any movie with people who have never acted before can be a risky choice. If there is a flaw in Act of Valor, it is the scenes away from the action and violence...any dramatic scene in other words. These men have been trained within an inch of their lives to be the best at what they do. They have not been trained to be professional actors. The dialogue scenes feel like a high school play with amateur actors. 'I love you' is followed rather stiffly with a wooden delivery 'I love you too, baby.' Roarke and Dave talking about getting back home, seeing their wives and kids, about getting through the next mission? Those scenes are even awkward in their execution because no matter how good these men are as soldiers, they're just not actors. The terrorists include Christo (Alex Veadov), a disillusioned Russian, and Abu Shabal (Jason Cottle), a converted Muslim obsessed with taking war to the U.S.

Actors no, soldiers yes. 'Valor' will no doubt sink or swim as an action movie, even if that description seems to minimize their contributions on these missions that were based on real-life events. The missions are harrowing, uncomfortable, and unsettling rolled into one. The extremists they're hunting are in a triangle of Filipino gunrunners, Chechnyan terrorists, and Mexican drug cartels. The introduction to their skills -- a raid in the Filipino jungle to save Sanchez's CIA agent -- was my favorite action set piece, featuring one impressive action sequence after another. Their arrival is the best part; camouflaged faces poking up above the water level before descending below again to move in on their target. One SEAL waits for the team's sniper to pick off a guard, catching the corpse before it can hit the water, the splash alerting other guards. It's that sort of little thing that reeks of the reality of the situation. You couldn't make this up if you tried. All the action is impressive including later firefights at sea, at a poor village in Mexico housing the terrorists, and the finale near the U.S./Mexico border as the bombers try to get into the United States.

Mostly what I took away from this movie was a respect for the Navy SEALs and their very impressive skills. Because what they do is so important and so dangerous, we rarely see or hear about their successful missions. The names of SEALs killed in action since 9/11 illustrate at what cost these men do their jobs. The ending itself is very effective in its emotion. Call it pandering or heavy-handed, but it works. The reviews seem fairly mixed for this movie, but audiences are going out and seeing it. It isn't a great movie with its fair share of flaws. Where it does succeed? Honoring some of America's heroes who help save thousands of lives without the American public ever knowing what they've accomplished.

Act of Valor <---trailer (2012): ***/****   

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