Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Act of Valor’: A New War Movie Genre

October 9, 2020 Updated: October 9, 2020

R | | Action, Adventure, Thriller | 24 February 2012 (USA)

“When you meet an active-duty U.S. Navy SEAL, he has a look. He has an intensity and an aura that’s almost impossible to replicate. He may have been training and on active duty for 20 years. How can an actor recreate that?” So said director Scott Waugh in the press notes for the 2012-released, state-of-the-art war movie “Act of Valor.”

Navy SEALS rescue CIA agent in "Act of Valor"
Mikey, Sonny, Roselyn Sánchez, and Chief Dave in “Act of Valor.” (Relativity Media)

Since the termination of Osama bin Laden and the hyperaccurate sniping of Somali pirates by U.S. Navy SEALs, SEALs have been front and center in the world’s spotlight.

Of course they’ve been portrayed before, in dramatically compelling but realistically nonsensical Hollywood fare like “G.I. Jane” starring Demi Moore and “Navy SEALs” starring Charlie Sheen, but up until “Act of Valor,” we’d never seen these military masters in their natural habitat. As co-director Mike McCoy concurred in the press notes: “The U.S. Navy SEALs in combat are far more than anything Hollywood could ever write.”

sniper and spotter in ghillie suits in "Act of Valor"
(L–R) SOC (special operations capable) Weimy (Weimy), a SEAL Team 7 sniper, and Lieutenant Commander Rorke (Rorke Denver) provide sniper overwatch for their hostile-compound-raiding teammates in “Act of Valor.” (Relativity Media)

The “Act of Valor” cast is made up largely of real-life, active-duty SEALs. Can these warriors bring the goods, acting-wise? Sort of, but they don’t really have to. They just do what they do, and due to new camera technology, we get to be flies on the wall in the submarine, on the sniper ghillie suit, and inside the jump goggles and dive masks of SEALs. The result is slightly mind-blowing. It ushered in a brand new film genre.

‘This Story Is Based on Real Acts of Valor’

The above line glows white on the dark screen before the movie kicks off. Action: In the Philippines, the U.S. ambassador, his kid, as well as an elementary school full of children are killed by Chechen terrorist Abu Shabal (Jason Cottle) driving an ice-cream truck bomb.

Meanwhile in Costa Rica, two CIA agents, Walter Ross and Lisa Morales (Nestor Serrano and Roselyn Sánchez), compare notes about their target, Christo Troykovich (Alex Veadov), a drug kingpin.

Christo’s thugs kill Ross, roll Morales up in a Persian rug, ferret her away to a jungle stronghold, and put a power drill through her hand.

This rescue is a job for Batman, Superman, or Bandito Platoon—SEAL Team 7. We meet them when Lt. Rorke tells Chief Dave that Rorke’s wife is pregnant. Soon, seven SEALs from Team 7, including Rorke, Dave, Ray, Sonny, Ajay, Weimy, and Mikey, deploy to Costa Rica to rescue agent Morales.

With the exception of Rorke Denver, who’s a published author, all the other SEALs go only by their real first names. Their backstories ring true, such as handsome, acne-scarred Weimy’s (the team’s sniper), who grew up in a Midwestern town so dull that local teens bowled frozen turkeys down supermarket aisles for fun. He joined the SEALs to get a life, and Ajay was a former Muay Thai fighter.

The team HALO (high-altitude, low-opening) parachute jump into the Costa Rican jungle and conduct stealth reconnaissance. Hearing agent Morales’s cries for help, they go in early. Rorke and Weimy provide sniper overwatch, while the rest, led by Dave, go door-kick and room-clear the compound, putting down enemy combatants.

The most interesting of these encounters is Dave’s submerged swim up the murky channel behind an armed lookout. He puts only his hands out of the water; Weimy snipes the guard, and the guard’s potential loud splash is muffled by Dave’s soft, aquatic catch. Talk about SEAL stealth.

SEAL in pick-up truck firing rifle in "Act of Valor"
Chief Dave in the back of a pickup, firing at enemy trucks, in “Act of Valor.” (Relativity Media)

The SEALs recover Morales, along with her info-laden cellphone, but the raid tips off the enemy, who encroach lickety-split via a truck convoy. The SEALs steal a pickup truck and vamoose. More on how the SEALs finesse their escape in a minute.

Next Plot Twist

The intelligence gathered from agent Morales’s phone reveals Christo and Abu Shabal to have been childhood friends, who now share a joint terrorist project: outfitting jihadi suicide bombers with ceramic explosive vests that can bypass metal detectors. Shabal’s got the anti-American suicide squad; Christo’s drug smuggling offers tunnels for them to penetrate the United States.

terrorists make suicide vests in "Act of Valor"
Abu Shabal (Jason Cottle, R) approaches his team of terrorists manufacturing undetectable explosive vests, in “Act of Valor.” (Relativity Media).

Will SEAL Team 7 intercept and exterminate Shabal and the suicide squad? Will SEAL Team 4 (brought in specifically to capture Christo) succeed? Team 7 links up with Mexican Special Forces to capture Shabal, but during a firefight one of our boys dives on a grenade to save his teammates before it detonates…

Navy SEALS carry coffin in "Act of Valor"
SEAL pallbearers (counterclockwise from left) Chief Dave, Mikey, Ajay, Weimy, Ray, and Sonny carry their fallen comrade in “Act of Valor.” (Relativity Media)

New Genre

In 2012, the world hadn’t yet seen the level of stealth that SEALs are capable of, nor had we witnessed the SWCC (Special Warfare Combatant-Craft) gunboat crews in full action.

We hadn’t seen SEAL equipment like the Mark V SEAL special-operations boats, which are like mechanized marine predators: low-slung, blacked-out, stealth-rigged, with monster engines, and fast as mako sharks.

Directors Scott Waugh and Mike McCoy knew that the utterly devastating, Grim Reaper firepower of a SOC-R boat (Special Operations Craft-Riverine) needed to be seen to be believed.

gunboat crew come to the rescue with guns blazing in "Act of Valor"
The SWCC (Special Warfare Combatant-Craft) gunboat crew of a SOC-R boat (Special Operations Craft-Riverine) come to their SEAL brothers-in-arms rescue, with guns blazing in “Act of Valor.” (Relativity Media)

To pick back up on the rescue of agent Morales: Fleeing the cartel truck convoy in a commandeered turquoise pickup, escaping Team 7 drives straight into a jungle river, and—water being SEALs’ cozy comfort zone—swims out the submerged truck’s windows underwater.

Since it’s a “hot extract,” their rescuing SOC-R boat crew hauls up sideways, right on time, and lays down a truly shocking, pulverizing barrage of bullets on what would normally be a deadly, six-truck cartel convoy. Talk about outmatched. The high-decibel braying of the boat’s miniguns and the gut-registering pounding of the 50-caliber machine guns is electrifying.

Navy SEAL in water near boat shooting gun in "Act of Valor"
Navy SEAL sniper Weimy returning fire alongside a SOC-R boat in “Act of Valor.” (Relativity Media)

This is the first film ever to use all live ammunition—not seen before because it’s too dangerous. But with actual SEALs on the guns, for whom this is just another day at the office, when live rounds are fired, a yard-long flame leaps off the gun muzzles. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why these affairs are called “firefights.” I watched a YouTube video about these boats, and the SOC crew captain said, regarding their awesome firepower, words to the effect of, “Anyone who engages one of these boats will be immediately sorry they did.”

The real actors chosen for the film are not major stars, so they blend in well with the real-SEAL cast. Likewise, the facts and the fiction aspects are entwined fairly seamlessly.

The only aspect of the film that is slightly weak is the voiceover, which is done by a real SEAL Dave. The combat footage, while not real, is realistic in the sense that the SEALs were given free rein to plan and carry out missions just as they would in real combat situations.

It’s rare in film that the nonactors can actually act, but in “Act of Valor,” this situation works for the most part. What becomes recognizable is that these quiet, humble men, handsome but not extraordinary at first glance, carry in their speech and in their walk something rather ominous. That might be because a SEAL weighing 130 pounds can do a 13-mile run carrying a hundred-pound pack on his back.

What is valor? An ex-SEAL, in a Men’s Journal interview, describes an act of heroism as only being valid if you don’t tell anyone about it. I cut out a paragraph from the magazine and put it on my corkboard. The best sentence: “If you could never tell anyone, ever, that you had climbed Mount Everestwould you climb it?”Epoch Times Photo

The film ends with a dedication to all U.S. Navy SEAL and Special Warfare Combatant Crew killed in action since 9/11, along with their names, and photos of civilian first responders.

The above-described humble heroism on display in “Act of Valor” is a new insight into the creed of true warriors. It made me realize that the phrase “Thank you for your service” doesn’t get said nearly enough in American society today.

Navy SEALS pose for photo op for "Act of Valor"
(L–R, standing) Chief Dave, retired U.S. Navy SEAL Derrick Van Orden, Weimy, Ajay, Captain Duncan Smith, Rorke Denver. (L–R, kneeling) Mikey, Ray. Bona fide Navy special operations warriors, all, pose for pictures at an event for “Act of Valor.” (2012 Getty Images)

‘Act of Valor’
Directors: Scott Waugh, Mike McCoy
Cast: Active-Duty U.S. Navy SEALs, Roselyn Sánchez, Alex Veadov, Jason Cottle, Nestor Serrano
Rating: R
Release Date: Feb. 24, 2012
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch