Film Review: Act of Valor

Navy SEALs span the globe fighting a terrorist plot. Ugly action outing notable for the gimmick of using real-life soldiers in the leads.

A feature-length recruiting ad masquerading as a movie, Act of Valor works best if you think of it as a prototype for a shooter video game. As trumpeted in its trailer and publicity materials, the movie features real-life "active-duty" soldiers performing the equivalent of training exercises against terrorist targets. Weaponry and tactics aside, Act of Valor offers nothing that hasn't been done better in scores of less troubling stories.

The premise of Act of Valor is expressed best by "Dave," a chief in Navy SEAL Team 7, when he says, "There's threats everywhere." A terrorist bomb kills a U.S. diplomat in Latin America; moments later, Lisa Vaughn (Roselyn Sanchez), a nurse in a rural Costa Rica clinic, is kidnapped and tortured by terrorists. Turns out Vaughn is an undercover CIA agent with valuable information.

Members of Team 7 bid farewell to wives and families in San Diego to head for Costa Rica, where they undertake an air and amphibious assault on the terrorist compound where Vaughn is shackled. A "hot extract" of the nurse nets the team a cell-phone that connects Eastern European smuggler Christo with a terrorist plot. Christo's childhood friend Abu Shabal plans to unleash 16 suicide bombers, wearing vests filled with ceramic explosives, on U.S. targets.

Tipped off about an island in Mexico where Abu Shabal is headed, Dave and "Rorke" lead an attack on a village there. But the terrorists escape to an abandoned milk factory, headquarters of a drug cartel. Abu Shabal plans to use the cartel's system of tunnels to sneak his suicide bombers under the border.

Teaming up with Mexican soldiers, the SEALs attack the milk factory. The odds are somewhat better for the heavily armed druggies than they were in the previous firefight, which means Mexican soldiers and even some SEALs will become casualties in the war against terror.

The film's three extended action sequences purportedly use authentic maneuvers endorsed by the Navy (which can strip out the footage later for its own purposes). The sequences are remarkably similar to those in current Hollywood action movies, albeit with more jargon.

The film's non-action material is about as tired as moviemaking can get. The professional actors who fill out supporting roles do what they can with the script's perfunctory writing. The active-duty SEALs in the lead roles are not a total embarrassment, but they are clearly out of their depth. Character development is minimal—Rorke has a loving wife, Dave chews on a toothpick even when surfing—and the soldiers aren't helped by screenwriter Kurt Johnstad's corny dialogue. "Being dangerous was sacred, an act of honor," Dave has to intone at one point.

If you take the trouble to cast real-life performers, why bother sticking them in cardboard roles? Why force them through a generic, flavorless story that could be any episode of "NCIS"?

As for the film's political implications, Act of Valor comes out in favor of "shoot first" rather than "due process." At least the directors have the guts—or the indifference—to show the SEALs firing at unarmed Mexican villagers sleeping in cots, giving new meaning to "act of valor."