It's the ultimate in stunt casting. The adventure film "Act of Valor" stars active-duty U.S. Navy SEALs in leading roles. In an unprecedented partnership between an independent film company and the Navy, the commandos were filmed in exotic locations on training exercises with live weapons fire. Those documentary-style scenes were subsequently woven into a plot involving a jihadist suicide attack on America's largest cities. The result is a film with a façade of authenticity stretched across an armature of comic-book heroism and absurd villainy.
Commenters, pause a moment. "Act of Valor" is not a good movie. This does not mean that I do not support our troops, or that I sympathize with our nation's enemies, or that I don't know the men onscreen do more for our nation in a day than America's assembled movie critics accomplish in their collective careers. What it means is that I think these real-life action heroes deserve a better movie. So does the audience.
The plot: While rescuing a female CIA agent from the kidnappers' jungle base, the men of Bandito Squadron recover a cellphone stuffed with intelligence secrets. A Muslim fanatic, assisted by a Russian smuggler, intends to move suicide bombers across the Mexican border. Kurt Johnstad's script is generally light on ingenuity but here he achieves a hat trick, hitting three ethnic hot buttons in a single plot. It is later bluntly established that the jihadist's Russian enabler is a Jew, perhaps for extra credit.
The military players (whose identities are closely guarded by the Department of Defense and don't appear in the credits) are world-class experts at running with weapons, which is all that "Act of Valor" requires of them. They all have the same haircut, basic speech patterns, mannerisms and all-American attitude. It would have been good to make them vivid individuals easier to tell apart, but no such luck. Johnstad, one of the five credited writers on "300," deals in types, not people. He revives such stock figures as Serviceman Leaving Pregnant Wife Behind, Scar-Faced Villain, Damsel in Distress, "Bad Cop" Interrogator and Sadistic Torturer. This is not presented as an homage to bygone war films but as a sort of dumbed-down "Why We Fight."
Co-directors Mike "Mouse" McCoy and Scott Waugh are TV commercial directors specializing in high-octane spots for brands like Mountain Dew and NASCAR. "Act of Valor" initially was conceived as a public relations tool to drive recruitment. On that level it may be a success, as it makes combat resemble a thrilling first-person-shooter video game. As a combat film, it's fine. As a social and historical document, it seems certain to generate bad feelings on all sides. If we're going to cast our fighting forces in fiction films, let's honor them with projects worthy of them.