In this image released by Relativity Media, a scene is shown from the film "Act of Valor," starring real, active-duty Navy SEALs. (AP Photo/ Relativity Media)
ACT OF VALOR
2 stars out of 4Here's something from a critic you're not going to read very often: if you want to enjoy this movie more than you would otherwise, be sure to miss the first five minutes.
For reasons known only to them, co-directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh open their film addressing the audience and telling them a bunch of things they shouldn't know going in. It is the equivalent to the type of making-of featurette included in the bonus section of a home video release -- something that should only be seen after the viewer has already watched the movie. Rarely has there been a more glaring -- and totally avoidable -- instance of filmmakers stealing their own thunder and practically ruining an audience's experience.
Another thing you probably shouldn't know but has already been made abundantly clear in every commercial, trailer and even on the movie poster: "Act of Valor" stars active-duty Navy SEALS. This would be a great selling point if all of the SEALS with speaking roles could actually act, but sadly, they can't. Being that this is an action flick where there are significant stretches of time where no one has to talk and a lot of stuff gets blown up, that's OK.
Luckily, the filmmakers saw to it that they included some real actors in key roles which keeps the suspension of disbelief on life support and temporarily distracts the audience in a good way. The two principal villains -- both old-school, Cold War-minded Russians -- are twisted little puppies who lend the picture some much-needed tension and danger. Roselyn Sanchez ("Without a Trace") shines in her brief but crucial role as a CIA agent who is taken prisoner. Regarding Sanchez's character and other parts of the film: If scenes of graphic torture of a woman or the (off-screen) death of children easily upset you -- skip the film, really. The movie more than earns its hard "R" rating and to the filmmakers' credit, it is warranted and is rarely gratuitous.
Even though he's not that great at crafting engaging dialogue -- and again, in this type of movie that's not the most important thing -- screenwriter Kurt Johnstad ("300") comes up with a tremendously taut, realistic and edgy plot. After the capture of Sanchez's character, who is working undercover in Mexico, a band of stateside SEALS are called on to rescue her and this provides the film with the first of its three stunning set pieces.
Blending into their environment like chameleons, the soldiers -- along with some amazingly nifty gadgets and spyware -- slice through the enemy camp like surgeons. After watching this particular scene, it's easy to understand why the SEALS are regarded as the finest soldiers in the world and why they were called on by the current administration to take out Osama bin Laden. Witnessing them perform their duties will make you extra proud to be an American -- regardless of your political leanings. These guys mean business and don't mess about. Be glad they're on our side.
Before the SEALS take on the next leg of their mission, the filmmakers formally introduce us to the villains and while they are more cookie-cutter than original, Johnstad tosses in a back story for them which increases their depth and our interest in them tenfold. Johnstad's imagination regarding newfangled terrorist weaponry is extremely fertile and almost too effective. Some might even go as far to say what is shown here might give some nefarious types some really evil ideas.
Due to the reliance on too many action/war cliches (endless chase scenes and merciless, overdone gunfire exchanges), the final act delivers the most firepower but also the least satisfying storytelling moments. Johnstad substantially makes up for this near the end by including what had to be a difficult plot-twist choice that is painfully poetic and devastatingly authentic. This is the one point in the movie where the SEALS collectively display something resembling acting chops and they are thoroughly convincing.
If you choose to see the film (and you should), be sure to ask the box-office attendant exactly how many minutes of commercials and trailers there are before the actual start of the film (it'll probably be about 15 minutes). They all have this information and if you're nice about it when you ask them, they'll tell you. Tack on five minutes to that number, go get a cup of coffee or perhaps something stronger and then take your seats. This is one instance when showing up late will turn an otherwise 2 -1/2 star movie into one warranting 3 to 3 -1/2 stars. (Relativity Media)