"Act of Valor" is unlike any war movie we've seen before, and that's not just marketing hype straight from the film's one sheet.
The movie features active Navy SEALs in the main roles, not pampered stars flexing their muscles for the camera. The production used live rounds to create the most authentic action possible. Many of the military techniques employed in the film reflect the real tactics embraced by SEALs in live combat scenarios.
But "Valor's" originality doesn't stop there.
After years of seeing films treating American soldiers as mercenaries, thugs or much, much worse, we witness another side of the modern warrior. These SEALs are smart, self-effacing and brave beyond measure. Their personal sacrifices alone make them worthy of our respect and admiration. The film stands out in a sea of morally conflicted war movies where the enemy is given the benefit of the doubt, not the soldiers.
Directors Mike "Mouse" McCoy and Scott Waugh pay the SEALs some long-overdue respect, but they also reinvent the way action movies look and feel. "Valor" combines the "you are there" perspective from first-person video games with a stripped-down reality missing from most films commandeered by Stallone, Schwarzenegger or Willis.
"Act of Valor" follows a band of Navy SEALs dispatched to rescue a CIA operative (Roselyn Sanchez, "Without a Trace") held captive in Costa Rica. The mission uncovers a much broader threat, a terrorist plot meant to wipe out thousands of innocents, maybe more.
The SEALs regroup and prepare to strike new targets with a ferocity meant to spare lives and send a lesson to any one foolish enough to pull off a similar act of treachery.
The opening sequence, a terrorist bombing near a schoolyard, announces that "Valor" isn't interested in your standard action movie template. The bombing is carried out in shocking fashion, with the directors employing crisp vantage points to convey the kind of shock and awe western society faces today.
The CIA agent's rescue is a stunning piece of cinema, a thrill ride that feels as cathartic as any summer blockbuster might deliver. But the sense of danger never leaves the screen, and the SEALs aren't asked to recite any groan-worthy puns to undermine the experience.
The acting in "Valor" lacks the sophistication we've come to expect from most Hollywood fare. The SEALs speak in unguarded vernacular, and while the exchanges allow audiences to appreciate their sacrifices no one character emerges to anchor the story. We get to know the SEALs as human beings, but they emerge as a collective. Yet the unpolished dialogue actually works to the film's advantage at times, enhancing the authenticity "Valor" evokes.
One sequence, featuring a SEAL interrogating a terrorist suspect, provides a glaring exception. It's a terrific exchange, one that veers so far away from the Hollywood handbook that you'll wish you could rewind it and experience it again. The film would be better served had similar scenes entered the narrative.
The film's fiery first half represents a jarring movie-going experience, but "Valor" struggles to maintain that blistering pace. It's still a turning point in modern movie making, a picture bold enough to taunt the industry's conventional wisdom regarding the U.S. soldier. War may be hell, but the SEALs fighting on our behalf are nothing less than heroes.