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Monday, February 27, 2012

Sometimes, I wonder if it would be worth throwing out the entire corpus of Italian cinema from De Sica to Antonioni to Argento, if such a dire price would save us from Neo-Realism's most disreputable legacy: non-actors playing major characters in movies for the "authenticity" it brings. That wasn't invented by the Italians, of course, but it was certainly legitimised by Bicycle Thieves; and it has resulted in some of the most embarrassing performances in cinema history in the six-plus decades since then.

Newest example: Act of Valor, a movie that exists for the single reason that active duty U.S. Navy SEALs are playing active duty U.S. Navy SEALs, but not ones based on themselves. Unless some of them actually let themselves die in order to make the movie, which would be even more badass than SEALs are typically held to be. It is, I want to stress, painfully obvious that this was not about key grip-turned-screenwriter Kurt Johnstad coming up with a story about Navy SEALs, giving it to directors Scott Waugh and Mike "Mouse" McCoy, and during pre-production, somebody hit upon the obvious-in-retrospect idea that there could be no better verisimilitude than put real American warriors in the film. This was a project build from the ground up to serve the concept of SEALs playing SEALs, presumably because an executive decided that hardcore pro-military conservatives haven't had a project tailored to their interests lately, and there was money to be made. And he handed it to one of the co-writers of 300.

The results aren't as bad as you might expect, largely for the reason that the filmmakers either by previous intent or immediately upon getting their performers on set have tailored the film to require as little capital-A Acting as is remotely feasible and still call the thing that results a narrative film. Here, in brief, is the plot of Act of Valor:

-COMMANDING OFFICER: "SEALs! You have to go to South America to save a CIA agent!
-[The SEALs travel to South America, where they shoot guns and blow things up for 30 minutes]
-C.O.: "SEALs! There are terrorists in Africa!"
-[The SEALs travel to Africa, where they shoot guns and blow things up for 30 minutes]
-C.O.: "SEALs! The terrorists are in Mexico now!"
-[The SEALs travel to Mexico, where they shoot guns and blow things up for 45 minutes]

The film wears its intentions to pander to the shallowest kind of xenophobic patriotism on its camo sleeves, but the real ideology of Act of Valor has less to do with neo-conservativism or neo-liberalism, and more to do with video games: the narrative structure doesn't even try to hide it. The gruff old dude who speaks uniformly in tough guy boilerplate dialogue announces the mission objectives, and the player (the one SEAL, uncredited like all the others to protect his identity, who narrates the film in the form of a letter to his dead friend's newborn son - that is a spoiler if you have never seen a single action movie, or were unaware that it is a wholly-defined genre of cinema) marches around and shoots, and occasionally gets to use the X button to do SEALPowers in order to solve puzzles or kill an extra-large number of olive-skinned villains. Sometimes, McCoy and Waugh even go so far as to shoot from a first-person perspective with the gun barrel pointing out of the bottom of the screen.

This results in one of the shallowest action movie experiences of recent memory, some two hours of soldiering action linked by a handful of tremendously unpersuasive character scenes in which we learn that, however good active duty SEALs are at being active duty SEALs, they are terrible at acting, even when the characters are ostensibly versions of themselves. The gruff old commander is by far the worst: he can't stop blinking, and though all of the players are visibly attempting to not look straight into the camera, he's the one who makes that task seem hardest. There's really no defending it: everything from staring into a dead comrade's face to sharing the news of one's impending baby is recited by every member of the cast in a similar angry monotone, and there is a complete vacuum of emotion. The filmmakers would have it that this is because no mere actor could be an action hero like a real-life action hero, and if Act of Valor were a live stage play, that argument would have merit. But in the movies - as the last 110 or so years have born out - give you the opportunity to fake it; and we are now living in an age where computers let you fake just about everything, including being in an action sequence. What they cannot fake is emotion, and that is an actor's job. That is why we have actors. The unit directors figure out how to make the doughy movie star look like a hard-ass, and the doughy movie stare figures out how to make the character not seem like an inordinately detailed fleshy prop.

It is this, and not the film's disquieting rah-rah kill the foreigners and protect our borders jingoism, that leaves Act of Valor as an extraordinarily anti-humanist film; the people in it simply do not register or matter. The one and only moment in the film where it's really easy to make a connection to one of the characters onscreen, it's when the villainous Chechen arms dealer Christo (Alex Veadov) is suddenly confronted with the reality of what could happen to his family if he doesn't play ball with the Americans - first, it's poor storytelling to make your bad guy more sympathetic than the nominal heroes, and second, Veadov is a proper actor, and that is what happens when you use proper actors. In fact, Veadov is a proper actor who does most of his work in FPS video games, and I am going to take that as deliberate.

But back to my point: Act of Valor is sprawling violence with absolutely no human anchor to give it any value beyond death pornography, and that would be true regardless of what military it served as feature-length advertisement for; it cares only about beating the bad guys without ever giving them or us any kind of motivation or feeling besides being Them or Us.

And even, in despite of all that, I would at least consider giving the film a muted pass, if only it had the goods as an action movie. An uphill battle, given that we don't really have much reason to give a shit about any person we see anywhere onscreen, but doable. Even here, though - especially here - the film collapses. Partially, this is because it looks like crap - in order to capture the SEALs working at the speed and in the conditions to which they are accustomed, Waugh and McCoy and cinematographer Shane Hurlbut* have shot the vast majority of the picture on DSLRs, and bless 'em for it; but DSLRs aren't ready for this kind of exposure. The film looks like a high-quality YouTube film that is, for some odd reason, being projected in a movie theater: it looks chintzy and fake, even though the very reason it looks like that is to minimise the amount of faked material put into the finished product. Which is a uniquely immaculate demonstration of a catch-22, if nothing else.

And with these cheap, amateur-looking cameras, the filmmakers capture... nothing, really. Action movies are too good at what they do for reality to compete; these very real SEALs doing very real and presumably very dangerous actions look, for all the world, like every single movie made in the 1980s, only darker and grubbier. It's frankly a waste of the SEALs' time to use them for something as derivative and brainless as this, and a waste of the viewer's time to watch what amounts to exceptionally well-Foleyed home movies.



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