Sunday, February 26, 2012

Call of Duty: ACT OF VALOR

Act of Valor, a debut feature from stunt coordinators Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh written by 300’s Kurt Johnstad, is nothing more than a reductive, derivative action movie. But the central gimmick of the film confuses this basic fact. This is a movie about Navy SEALs deployed to rescue a captured CIA agent with information about an impending terrorist attack on U.S. soil that has not a single unpredictable moment, but it stars actual SEALs as the soldiers in question. (As such, they can’t be credited for their work, a rule for which they may be thankful for more than one reason). For some audiences, this will be a factor of authenticity, a point in the movie’s favor. But this is a blindly approving piece of red meat rubberstamped with the approval of the military-industrial complex. In actuality, the gimmick renders an offensively dumb B-movie nothing more than a feature length recruitment ad.

Now, soldiers have certainly played themselves in films before, but these soldiers are no Audie Murphy. Just as Tropic Thunder told us no amount of boot camp could make actors in a war film real soldiers, merely putting real soldiers in a war film doesn’t make them actors. And it’s certainly no help that the script is made up mostly of lines that are clunkers, except for the few that are real howlers. They speak in clichés and have obligatory home lives. They may be played by real people but the characters never feel real themselves. There’s a certain mindlessness to the movie in its complete failure to even properly exploit its own gimmick.

When I say that Act of Valor is mindless, I don’t mean that it has nothing to say (believe me, I’ll get to that), but that there appears to be little intention behind what we’re being shown. Some of the action is seen as if it’s straight out of a first-person shooter, making me feel like I’m watching someone else play Call of Duty. Some of the action is filmed in an overworked shaky cam style. Some of the action is shown from a steady, removed distance. It’s all edited in a barely comprehensible, and certainly less than enjoyable, fashion that bludgeons forward, deadening almost all sense of narrative tension. It’s as perfunctory as a cut scene without the benefits of throwing you a controller. Much has been made in the press about how the film’s acting SEALs helped choreograph the action and, indeed, some of it appears to be quite well done, but the movie gives only brief moments in which to admire it.

Action directors, especially directors of big, dumb spectacles of action movies, are often accused of fetishized militarism, none more frequently in recent years than Michael Bay. His camera practically salivates over shots of machinery of war. But like his films or not, he’s an actual filmmaker, with an eye for visuals and a very real, if infrequently deployed, sense of the momentum of spectacle.  McCoy and Waugh, on the other hand, have yet to prove themselves in this department. They’re not filmmakers; they’re propagandists, and not even particularly skillful ones. The whole film seems deeply committed to its ideology but less committed to things like cinematography, the whole thing shot in painfully bleary digital photography like in a pivotal interrogation scene that is distractingly backlit and washed-out.

As for the plot itself, well, it’s mostly about stopping terrorists. But these aren’t just any terrorists. They’re written in ways that feed into all of the worst conspiracy-minded xenophobia of recent years, as they happen to be foreign, Muslim, suicide-bombing jihadists trying to sneak into the United States through Mexico. There’s a casual ugliness to the villains – all portrayed by actors and therefore more believable in this terrible material, especially the guy who looks like an anorexic Paul Giamatti – that is positively primeval. We first see them setting off an ice-cream-truck bomb at a school in the Philippines, so of course we know they’re bad. (And America is the unilaterally and uniformly brave heroes, of course).  But the terrorists are even less real characters than the SEALs, so we have two cardboard armies clashing with each other for reasons that are ideologically confused because neither side elucidates their mentalities. It’s a standoff between macho Americana and the despicable “other.”

It’s a movie about mission briefings followed by tactical maneuvers, culminating in shootouts. At the end of it all, the movie tries to pull out of its jingoistic nosedive with a 21-gun-salute for a fallen warrior. (I felt bad that one of the SEALs had to fake die in pretend combat for this tripe; here’s wishing the real soldier a long life). The credits start with a list of the names of real SEALs killed in action since 9/11. Those few seconds are more moving, more authentic, than anything that comes before. Our Navy SEALs are often heroes; I support the troops and it is my sincere wish that they could stay out of harm’s way. But war has real consequences. It’s not fun. It’s not a video game. And it’s certainly not a dumb movie that pretends to understand the life of a soldier but instead offers up pat platitudes and faux respect wrapped up in flag-waving, us-versus-them action setpieces. It’s a movie that wants to get its kicks out of combat and expects you to enjoy it too. And then it wants to make you feel bad about it for a second before you leave the multiplex swollen with patriotism and head out to enlist.

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