The new action movie "Act of Valor," about an elite squad of commandos trying to foil a deadly terrorist plot, brings a novel addition to the genre: real Navy SEALs. The movie stars active-duty SEALs in the lead roles and grew out of military recruiting efforts, eventually becoming a feature film. According to movie critics, the film betrays its origins, offering crackerjack action scenes but also stiff acting and a thin story.
The Times' own Kenneth Turan writes that "Act of Valor," co-directed by Mike "Mouse" McCoy and Scott Waugh, "still has some of that promotional film feeling to it, plus a healthy dose of worshipful mythologizing." Turan says the SEALs "are certainly impressive in combat situations" and "the split-second logistics of SEAL operations, not to mention the gear they have at their disposal, is also remarkable." Alas, "impressive as all this is, it can't hide the fact that these total warriors can't really act, a situation that may not matter in combat but has to be characterized as a drawback in a motion picture."
Even before the Navy parachute team dropped out of the sky high above Sunset Boulevard, you had a sense the “Act of Valor” premiere was a different sort of Hollywood event. After all, Tim Tebow had asked to attend.
As the screening for the movie was set to begin at the ArcLight on Monday night, there stood the Broncos quarterback, dressed spiffily in tie and vest, glad-handing members of the industry in the lobby and taking photos with adoring fans, who seemed to be doing more than their share of kneeling themselves. This was just after the Leap Frogs, as the Navy jump team is known, had made their aerial entrance, whooshing by in a plane overhead and then floating down to the red carpet -- but right before Arnold Schwarzenegger entered the lobby in a more conventional Hollywood manner (walking, with an entourage).
Movie studios are rarely averse to a good publicity stunt, but the high-flying spectacle, thrown by studio Relativity Media, was unusual given the people at the center of “Act of Valor": Navy SEALs, the elite amphibious unit that usually conducts its business well outside of the public eye.
Opening Feb. 24 (you can watch the trailer below), “Act of Valor” was built from the raw material of real-life training videos of active-duty SEALs, with footage folded into a series of scripted vignettes about a number of harrowing missions. (You can read the film’s fascinating back-story in my colleague Rebecca Keegan’s Sunday Calendar piece.) The group believes that it’s ready for its public moment, or at least a slight pulling back of the veil that has enshrouded it for so long.
Before the screening, directors Mouse McCoy and Scott Waugh asked the SEALs who appear in the film, about a dozen of them scattered throughout the audience, to stand for a moment of recognition. The audience then gave them a standing ovation, the first of several that would follow during key points in the film. “And we wanted to thank the … wives, mothers and spouses of those who go down range and serve our country,” said the directors, who are known collectively as the Bandito Bros., using the group’s lingo for the heart of their operations.
Many of the SEALs present Monday night also appeared in the film, real-life commandos who, while not likely to turn in their uniforms for Screen Actors Guild cards anytime soon, have also for a brief moment become screen stars on top of their day jobs hunting down bad guys in distant swamps and deserts.
After the screening, the SEALs mingled in the lobby, getting high-fives from members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Then they retired to a Hollywood club across the street, where their gold-flecked, deep blue uniforms served as an unusual sight among a premiere’s more typical mix of industry players and hangers-on.
(Many of the SEALs were reticent when approached and asked for their reaction to the film, saying little more than “great movie,” although a few, declining to give their names, did say that they found it motivating. “It made me want to go out and do even more for this country. And maybe like a thousand push-ups,” one SEAL told 24 Frames.)
"Act of Valor" opens on several thousand screens next week, its campaign financed by Relativity Media, the independently run studio that paid about $12 million for the right to release the movie. Though the movie never makes mention of the mission that killed Osama Bin Laden last spring -- it focuses far more generally on the SEALs' skill and sacrifice -- it’s impossible to sit through it and not think of that strike.
Which means the movie, not unlike Chrysler’s Clint Eastwood Super Bowl commercial this year, could be seen as providing tacit support for President Obama, who ordered the Bin Laden mission.
Indeed, a few weeks ago, the filmmakers took their movie to the White House, where senior brass from the Navy joined to view it with the president. The commander in chief watched the film through and told the filmmakers he liked it, according to a person who was present at the screening but declined to be identified because he was asked not to reveal details of the event.
(The philosophy that underlies the SEALs also plays to the administration’s belief that smaller, highly specialized units often represent a more favorable military option than traditional shock-and-awe tactics. And the SEALs' mission in Pakistan last year -- itself the subject of an upcoming movie from the filmmakers behind "The Hurt Locker" -- is a key piece of the president's re-election campaign.)
Relativity will hope to capitalize on the same patriotic, pro-SEALs feeling, and is positioning “Act of Valor” as far more than a typical action movie. The company's ambitions were evident in a Super Bowl spot, rare for a movie not based on an existing brand and containing no name actors, as well as a social-media campaign that exhorts filmgoers to "join the conversation."
The film's tagline plays on a similar sense of duty: “The only easy day was yesterday,” it states -- a sentiment that, as one watched the SEALs walk around the premiere after-party Monday night, was hard to disagree with even amid the abundant appetizers and open bars.
The Navy SEALs certainly have been depicted in any number of films. Charlie Sheen’s turn as Lt. Dale Hawkins in 1990’s “Navy Seals” -- “For God's sake, be careful out there!” -- perhaps being the low point.
But not until next year’s “Act of Valor” have the typically secretive elite warriors played themselves.
In a feature film helmed by the hot Los Angeles commercial directors the Bandito Bros. (Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh), seven active Navy SEALs star in a global thriller about a terrorist plot targeting the United States. “This thing is way bigger than we thought it was,” a voice intones in the new trailer for the film, which opens Feb. 17. “They’re going to hit us at home.”
By working with the Navy, the filmmakers had access not only to lots of hardware (the trailer shows glimpses of a submarine, an aircraft carrier, helicopters, drones, gunships and high-powered sniper rifles) but also to the SEALs themselves, who staged the film’s action scenes. Relativity Media bought domestic rights to the finished film for $13.5 million, a small fortune for an independently financed feature.
“The characters in this film are portrayed by active-duty U.S. Navy SEALs,” the trailer informs us. “The story is fictional, but the weapons and tactics are real.” As the trailer also makes clear, “Act of Valor” could very well be a recruiting tool. Top that, Mr. Sheen.