October 23, 2018

Posted March 10, 2012 by D. K. Holm

Publicized as a “recruiting film” for the Navy SEALs,Act of Valor shows the men ribbing each other mercilessly, leaving their wives at the doorstep to head secretly to hot spots, where they drop into bug-infested waters and witness human violence at its most degrading. This sounds so appealing. You endure bullying, spend half your time scared and wet and cold with people shooting at you – and then you die, leaving your widow to raise your son on her own. That’s a strange way to recruit people.

Act of Valor is the brainchild of Mike McCoy, a stunt man turned director with a fixation on SEALs and warriors of all kinds. According to news reports, he had the coöperation of the Navy itself in terms of manpower and machinery. Several real SEALs populate the film, but apparently only in subsidiary background ways. These guys are supposed to be anonymous, after all. Actually, it is sometimes hard to tell who is “real” and who is an actor, for those who seem to be thespians aren’t too good at acting, and the ones who seem real talk in that authentic clipped, jargon filled manner that shorthands “military.” SEALs are, of course, the Navy’s special force able to get anywhere be it on sea, air, or land. In the course of this tale, they invade Costa Rica, one of the most peaceful of Latin American countries, heist a yacht in international waters in order to interrogate a suspect, and also sneak into Somalia to spy on some bad guys. Russia also figures in the intricate hierarchy of villains in the film. The SEALs invade Costa Rica in order to retrieve a CIA agent posing as a children’s doctor (TV’s Roselyn Sanchez, formerly of Without a Trace). Somehow the bad guys have figured out that she is a spy and kidnap her in order to learn something or other. The torture she undergoes is horrific, and anyone sensitive to “torture porn” might want to stay away. But then, the film begins with a sequence in which a hundred school children are blown up at a private school in Jakarta.1 This is not a chick flick.

In fact, what it happens to be is a male weepie, the term British scholar Raymond Durgnat used to describe certain kinds of westerns, war films, and crime tales in which the men suffer the same kind of soap opera emotions that women do in their counterpart films. Except that here everything about the film is expressing emotions except the men at its center. The swelling music, the voice-over narration, which is a letter written to the son of what is ostensibly the main character after dad’s death, the sunset tides, all tell the viewer that we are suppose to weep for these proud guys while the guys themselves prefer to josh and give each other significant looks or pats on the butt. But as the movie says, “No one is more dangerous than a man who can harness his emotions.”2

There are some good sequences, such as the chase scene after the CIA agent “extraction” and the run down of a villain’s yacht. And the interrogation of the yacht’s occupant, one Christo (Alex Veadov), whom his interviewer keeps mispronouncing as “Crisco,” has some interesting psychological elements.  His interrogator, a “senior” of the team,3 is a thumbnail version of the techniques that we’ve seen summarized on TV, a blend of friendliness and menace. Christo is an arms deal and the childhood friend of the main villain, a Russian convert to Islam who, for unexplained reasons, hates the United States, and is setting up a team of Philippine jihadists to sweeping into America via Mexico to blow up everyone with deadly pellet filled explosive vests, made by little old ladies in a Russian factory.

Of course, the SEALs triumph, but at the cost of leaving behind a woman with a toddler, a pension, and a folded flag on her fireplace mantle. At which point the viewers – solely male, no doubt – are invited to weep silently before dashing to the recruiting office like lemmings.

1 They are collateral damage. The main target is an American diplomat whose son attends the school.

2 The script is credited to the adapter of 300.

3 And good luck finding the actor’s name and his character in the credits.