Act of Valor

Matters of national security would make it impossible, but I would love to see a documentary crew follow the Navy SEALs on some of their dangerous, highly specialized missions, to give us a feel for just how amazing those elite groups of soldiers must be. Such a film could be a rousing mix of patriotism and blockbuster action.

Since a documentary isn’t feasible, “Act of Valor” does what someone probably thought was the next best thing. It tells a fictional story, but with the Navy SEAL characters played by actual Navy SEALs. (The non-SEALs are actors, just like in a regular movie.) The directors, Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, who were approached by the Navy to make the film, address the audience in a prologue to explain that using real SEALs gave the movie a sense of authenticity that they couldn’t have gotten with actors.

With all due respect to the directors, and even more respect to the SEALs themselves, that doesn’t turn out to be true. All the SEAL-ish things that the SEALs do in “Act of Valor” could have been performed by actors or stuntmen — and in fact have been performed by actors and stuntmen in countless other military movies. Remember, we’re not watching real missions here. We’re watching re-enactments of missions in which the soldiers happen to be played by real soldiers. In between those action scenes, when the SEALs recite their scripted dialogue, it becomes painfully obvious that … well, that they’re not actors. Having SEALs on the set as advisers would lend authenticity. Making the SEALs do the acting themselves has the opposite effect, especially when it comes to the maudlin, emotional stuff. It’s about as disastrous as it would be if you sent a troupe of actors to rescue a kidnapped CIA operative.

Of course, it doesn’t help that they started with a dull, generic screenplay. Written by Kurt Johnstad (who was co-credited on “300”), it’s a laughably mundane collection of war-movie tropes: extracting a prisoner from South American rebels, stopping a terrorist attack before it happens, raiding a drug-trafficker’s base, all the usual business, portrayed with matter-of-fact gunshot-to-the-head bloody violence. The logistical details of the operations are perhaps more true-to-life than we typically see — we know those guys are holding their guns the way real SEALs hold their guns, creeping through the forest the way real SEALs do — but that doesn’t make up for the weakness of the story. Some of the missions are executed with badass efficiency — but so were a lot of the missions Jack Bauer used to do on “24.”

When you boil it down, “Act of Valor” is the worst of both worlds: a bad screenplay performed by non-actors. The fact that they’re performing scenes modeled after things they’ve done in real life doesn’t make it any more convincing, and certainly not any more entertaining. I’m in awe of the brave, heroic men who do this stuff in real life. “Act of Valor” isn’t real life. It’s a movie, and not a good one.

D+ (1 hr., 51 min.; R, some harsh profanity, a lot of strong violence.)