By Michael Phillips 2013-01-18

By Michael Phillips

Tribune Newspapers Critic

2 stars

Made with or without U.S. Department of Defense cooperation, fictional films about the American military favor narratives in which (mostly) men buck authority, risk their necks in bouts of jealous infighting and go the lone-wolf route in pursuit of the enemy.

"Act of Valor" has no time for that lack of teamwork. Its Navy Sea, Air and Land team warriors, better known as SEALs, collaborate without friction. They stick to the plan or adapt it when needed. Authority is not bucked. Voices are raised only under fire. And the SEALs, played in this film's rather strange mixture of real-life and hoked-up heroics by active-duty SEALs, spit out authentic mission jargon without stopping dead to explain what "hot extract" means to the civilians.

Here's how a frankly strange film came to be. According to Rear Adm. Denny Moynihan of the Navy Office of Information, quoted in The New York Times, the Navy was looking for approximately 500 more SEALs than they had at the ready. Then came "a series of initiatives to try to attract more people," Moynihan said. "This film was one of those initiatives."

All movies start somewhere; this one derives from a seven-minute training video on the Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen. Sports documentary veterans Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh expanded on their short film once the Navy signed off on a fictionalized SEALs adventure. "300" co-writer Kurt Johnstad wrote a script. The real-life SEALs share the screen with such actors as Roselyn Sanchez as a covert CIA agent who, in one scene, endures power-drill torture before being rescued by SEAL commandos.

"Act of Valor" plays like a highly favorable SEALs tribute placed atop a vaguely bogus storyline. After a bloody Philippines-set prologue, the story follows a SEALs team sent into Costa Rica to extract Sanchez's Morales, whose captors work for an oily drug lord (played by Alex Veadov). There's a larger problem, too, involving the smuggler's Chechen Muslim associate (Jason Cottle) whose plans for global terrorism include a multicity attack on the U.S.

Thanks to its nonprofessional actors' facility with weaponry, "Act of Valor" contains shots and parts of entire sequences that feel different, and truer, than the average war picture. The filmmakers' access to a full range of modern weaponry, including a nuclear submarine, lends an aura of credibility -- that is, at least until the combat sequences obsess, again and again, on splattery kill shots to the head. The action beats come straight out of the video game "Call of Duty." And when you have real SEALs placed in a picture that lives and dies on the same old first-person-shooter aesthetic, you have a film divided against itself.

"No one is stronger and more dangerous than a man who can harness his emotions," we hear at one point in a eulogy. I wish "Act of Valor" conveyed more of that real danger.

MPAA rating: R (for strong violence including some torture and for language).

Running time: 1:41.

Cast: Uncredited Navy SEALs; Rosalyn Sanchez (Morales); Alisa Marshall (Jackie Engel); Timothy Gibbs (J.C. Palmer).

Credits: Directed by Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh; written by Kurt Johnstad; produced by McCoy and Waugh. A Relativity Pictures release.

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