Act of Valor, opening in theaters nationwide today, is about a team of Navy SEALs who are charged with finding a kidnapped CIA agent, which in turn, leads them on a mission to stop terrorists planning a series of suicide bombings in cities across the United States. But the project began not as a movie but as a recruiting initiative, an unorthodox circumstance that makes Act of Valor unique among post-9/11 war flicks. And if AOV proves to be a commercial success, it could herald a new wave of action flicks reminiscent of the golden era of the '70s exploitation genre.
The Navy's office of information issued a statement a few weeks ago that attempts to explain how recruiting dollars wound up funding a major motion picture:
AOV is the end result of a recruiting initiative launched by the Navy Special Warfare community in response to the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review that directed a significant increase in special operations forces. AOV is an approach to recruiting that addresses the SEALs critical manning issue and aims to inspire the next generation of Navy recruits to consider service in the NSW community.
So what begins as a given -- of course a Navy SEAL recruiting film would feature real Navy SEALs -- turns into a marketing hook: Act of Valor stars real Navy SEALs. And because AOV's genesis was internal to the service the directors didn't have to go through the normal government approval processes as the movie came together.
The way the AOV project evolved explains the movie's shortcomings from a critic's point of view. As Marshall Fine wrote on these pages real Navy SEALs are not professional actors, and their performances in the movie demonstrate that -- at times to distraction. (Future cult flick drinking game: Every time the SEALs call each other "bro" you have to take a shot.) Recruiting films generally don't care about characters or plot, and what starts as an intriguing portrayal of the nefarious characters that would do us harm on a grand scale is rendered subordinate to the action sequences.
And the action is ultimately what AOV is about. Sequences were all created real-time with zero post-production computer effects. There's evidence of the directors' -- known collectively as "the Bandito Brothers" -- extreme sports filmmaking roots and a definite influence from the POV style used in modern video games like "Call of Duty." Every SEAL mission area is featured in luxurious visual detail -- SEALs jump out of airplanes, "fast rope" onto ships, and slide into and out of submarines. The cinematography is visceral; the pacing is unrelenting.
Hollywood has been soured on military properties since 9/11 because, with the notable exception of The Hurt Locker, military-themed movies (like In the Valley of Elah, Stop Loss, Lions for Lambs) have been box office disappointments. But each of those movies had a political theme -- a "soldier as victim" subtext -- that was put-offish to the core audience, which perhaps in turn kept them from resonating with the broader public. (Or maybe they were just crummy movies.)
Troops and families who attending early screenings almost unanimously loved AOV because of the "authentic" action, but also because the movie is unflinchingly pro-military. There's no PTSD, no missing limbs, no marital issues. (Heck, the Banditos Brothers brag in movie promos that the SEALs involved with the movie co-wrote it.)
The overall message of AOV is that the military doesn't chew innocents up and spit them out; it allows patriots to become their best selves. You wanna be a real life ninja? Join the Navy. Critics say, "Shallow;" fans say, "Real... finally."
"I think it's safe to say that this is the first movie I've ever seen that has thrilled me by the way it portrays military families," said Amy Bushatz, managing editor of Spousebuzz.com and an Army wife. "This is the first time I've ever felt my life accurately represented by Hollywood."
So is the Hollywood brain trust ready for this potential paradigm shift? Will a take of $20 million through the opening weekend cause the studios to go back and give another look to military-themed properties they previously passed on? Will the Department of Defense allow active duty troops -- Green Berets and Army Rangers, for instance, who are certainly feeling left out already -- to appear in follow-on movies that are certain to crop up in the wake of an AOV success? Will otherwise security conscious government agencies be more inclined to approve scripts and filmmakers in their midst under the auspices of helping the movie industry to "get it right" like they did for AOV?
If AOV succeeds at the box office then the answer to all of those questions is yes.
Standby for Billy Jack in cammo; standby for the next wave of exploitation flicks.