Monday, October 22, 2012

A Chick Flick with Guns

Act of Valor has got to be the most hilariously inept propaganda film ever. Not because it's bad - it's surprisingly decent and in a few rare cases well acted. Rather, it fails due to how it exposes all the failings and neuroses of contemporary American culture.

First of all, it's embarrassingly weepy. For an action flick, it's all inaction for the first twenty minutes as we get to see Our Heroes fuss around with their families. Lieutenant Soon-Be-Dead is an expectant father and promises his wife Gonna-Be-A-Single-Mom that he totally won't die. And Chief something or other delivers half the dialogue as a meandering monologue on his father and some shallow platitudes about manhood and honor.

"This right here is the first third of a film about Navy SEALs..."

I get it, they're simple family men and stuff. But this sort of thing can be communicated with much less slow motion and maudlin voice-overs.

Second, the film can't decide who our enemies are supposed to be so it goes for a cocktail of bogeymen - terrorists, drug lords, illegal immigrants, even Russians! Technically a Chechen, but the guy is straight out of Cold War casting right down to the gnarly facial scar. His childhood friend, a Colombian-Russian-Jewish international crime lord, is the best actor in the entire piece and gone much too soon.

There've been lots of complaints that the real SEALs who starred in this couldn't act. That's less of a problem than one might think at first. A much bigger problem, particularly in the slow opening, is that the lines they're given are just so damn bad. The sort of thing a sanctimonious dolt would find deep, so the fault of a bad screenwriter. And it persists through the whole damn movie! Even when they're about to jump out of a plane, one of them is gushing, "The only thing better than this is being a dad!"

I don't blame the SEALs for this drek and not just because I know they could hunt me down and kill me in some fairly unpleasant way. The guy who says that line about being a dad is visibly uncomfortable with it, just making it more obvious that the line was jammed in by a writer with an agenda. A stupid agenda.

"Changing a diaper is way cooler than this!"

You'd think the action sequences are why people went to see this. There are some fast, punchy scenes, in particular the helmet-cam parts filmed down the SEALs' gun sights. Call of Duty: The Motion Picture! But no, even the firefights are gummed up by slow-motion melodrama, as Americans need their ass-kicking served with a spoonful of syrup. In the middle of a damned car chase, things have to slow down so the SEALs can share long, meaningful glances that bring to mind "In The Navy" more than a stolid brotherly bond. Even in the climactic gun battle, where everything slows down every two minutes so the SEALs can dive away from a blast or make a heroic stand against the odds, all looking like they're ready to shed manly tears. Because Americans need their heroics that blatant and their heroes that... I don't even know. Is there a word for being a meat-eating super soldier while simultaneously being an Oprah fantasy of the gentle father and provider?

Compare Act of Valor to the British drama about the Special Air Service, the unfortunately named Ultimate Force, and it doesn't compare. On that show, the national heroes are portrayed as human beings with all their warts. They're not the nicest bunch but they're not monsters. They're brave and good at what they do but they clearly enjoy shooting people more than polite society would deem healthy. And the very first episode involves "resolving" a hostage situation by shooting the shit out of all the hostage takers, even the kid who'd put down his gun and was ready to surrender.


But that's what the SAS does and Ultimate Force merely relays it, leaving any moral judgement up to the viewer. Act of Valor in contrast is a silly suburban fantasy, glossing over the uglyness of special operations - which can get damn ugly - and wallowing in a new sort of militarism bathos.

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