"ACT OF VALOR" is not your typical modern war movie - it stars real Navy SEALs, and the Department of Defense had final cut.
From the get-go, filmmakers Scott Waugh and Mike McCoy wanted their SEALs-in-action combat movie to be realistic. They hired SEALs as military advisers, then decided to eliminate the middleman (goofball actors) and simply hire the SEALs to fill the commando roles. Who among you who has seen "Navy SEALs" (or "Tropic Thunder") could argue?
"Valor" is an interesting experiment, unlike anything since Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy re-enacted his World War II heroics in "To Hell and Back," but keyed to an [action-hungry audience raised on video games.
The acting is . . . well, it's often not that great. Sorry, Chief Dave and Lt. Rorke. Please don't snap my neck like a twig. On the other hand, we get what feels like an authentic look at how SEALs operate, fight, interrogate (there's an amusing Q&A sequence here with a real SEAL debriefer sparring with a terrorist financier).
Directors Waugh and McCoy are former stunt men who've directed lushly photographed action-oriented sports documentaries ("Step Into Liquid"), and bring their knack for visual panache along with them.
In a boffo early sequence, the SEALs rescue a kidnapped CIA agent. Men parachute in, speed boats parachute in, and there is a nifty montage of armed assault, snipering, truck chases and speedboat extraction.
It's gorgeously shot, smartly edited (the filmmakers use a lot of helmet-cam perspective for boots-on-the-ground authenticity) - which raises a sticky question: Should realistic combat look this awesome? Should it be so much fun to watch?
The raid obtains intelligence that sets the same globe-trotting SEAL team on the trail of a terrorist fanatic who is bringing ultra-deadly, high-tech explosive vests into the United States.
Can you imagine, asks the bomb maker, what will happen when the explosive gel detonates and sends a million ceramic bearings flying in all deadly directions? Well, we don't have to, because the movie can't resist showing us - and getting off on the lethal display.
The movie also invites us to thrill at the omnipotence of the SEALs. They're the best-trained, best equipped fighters in the world. They have the best weapons, the coolest stuff, can strike anywhere, at any time.
And yet SEALs in "Act of Valor" are not supermen. They get shot. They get wounded. They die. The movie closes with a poem by Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, used to explain the warrior code of the SEALs, their ethic of fearless sacrifice.
Tecumseh, of course, became the middle name of union General William Sherman.
And Sherman had his own view of war and sacrifice.
"There is many a boy here who looks upon war as all glory. But boys, it is all hell."
You wonder if the Department of Defense would have approved that line.