I remember the evening of May 1, 2011 with vivid clarity. Facebook lit up with news -- President Obama about to make an important announcement. Rumors flooded status updates and we tuned our televisions to 24-hour news networks to wait. And, one nail biting hour later, the President finally appeared to confirm that US Navy SEALs had stormed a suburban compound in Pakistan and rid the world of Osama Bin Laden. As more and more information became public over the following days and weeks, the whole operation read like a Hollywood action movie, which signaled to the actual studios: Navy SEALs are a "must have property!" With the studios snapping up various SEAL projects and Kathryn Bigelow redesigning her already developed 'Kill Bin Laden' project to represent breaking news, there was one project already in the can and looking for distribution.
An independently made, sub-$20 Million Dollar action movie, 'Act of Valor' is an ambitious experiment that uses active duty Navy SEALs as the stars of the film while showcasing a plethora of battle scenarios, weaponry, and other explosive toys. The SEALs are brothers, dedicated men bonded for life, who must leave families behind to perform covert missions in hostile, foreign territories. After the SEALs rescue CIA Agent Morales -- undercover and trying to get close to notorious drug smuggler, "Christo" -- in Costa Rica, they learn Christo may be in bed with terrorist Abu Shabal, helping to plot an attack on American soil using advanced suicide bomber vests. It's up to the SEALs to track the terrorists and stop them from finding their way across the US border before it's too late.
I'm not sure what it's like for our readers from around the world, but like many Americans, I have a full metric ton of respect for the men and women in our armed services. To think I spent my day watching a Blu-ray and writing it up for you fine readers while others are on the front lines of actual war is humbling to say the least. That respect I have and the big heart / ambitious scale of this project -- with a heaping dose of gritty and authentic realism -- is what makes it hard to say that the movie experience is only an average one. Since these heroes are real SEALs portraying versions of themselves, I feel overly criticizing is to somehow dump on their real life accomplishments, which is clearly not my intention. These men are the real deal and, for that, they have my unwavering admiration. As a movie, I simply wish they had been in more capable hands.
Sure, the first big action sequence -- the Costa Rica rescue / extraction -- is a full blown, edge of your seat, chest thumping ride. It's loud and exciting and well orchestrated. It should make many action fans stand up and clap because it gets your adrenaline pumping. It's clear that the film excels whenever it is "documenting." That is, whenever the film is capturing the SEALs in their natural soldier environments -- battles, briefings, small moments between the guys. There's also a terrific scene where the SEALs capture a yacht and Chief Miller interrogates Christo. It is funny, tense, and well acted.
However, when the filmmakers begin adding "drama" to the world -- whether it be the villain performances or highlighting the themes and the emotional stakes -- the film drags, mired in a world of pace-killing slow motion, on-the-nose dialog, poor action film structure, and cliché. To be honest, the first-time actor SEALS do a pretty good job, but when you see their personal interviews in the film's special features, you realize their dynamic personas were not fully captured on screen. Funny, the filmmakers' hypothesis was that actors wouldn't have been able to portray the complexities of professional Navy SEALs, and I would agree. But, in not hiring professional actors to play SEALs, talking scenes come off a little forced. To make matters even more on the nose, when the acting isn't working out, "thematic" patriotic music spells out, in lyric form, subtext and what you should be feeling.
Far more troubling, for action fans, is the film's structure. The film builds nicely in the first act up to the Costa Rica sequence, but nothing that follows is as exciting or complex or dangerous. As such, when the film ultimately reaches its third act climax, the final setpiece feels a little pedestrian. Ask yourself this: ever see a fireworks show where the biggest and brightest explosions weren't at the end? There's a reason the last part is called the finale. It's tiring watching modern action films where the third act setpiece fails to be A) the biggest, B) most challenging, and C) most personal to the heroes.
'Act of Valor' is a mixed bag. The action should impress those who love explosions and tense, visceral thrill rides. My guess is if you liked 'The Expendables' or love the U.S. Military, you'll find room for 'Act of Valor' on your display case and / or shelves. The first time actors try their best, but whenever the filmmakers stray from documenting reality, cliché abounds. Ultimately, this impressive stunt can't stick its proverbial landing and is underwhelming thanks to a simple structural error and some choices out of the SEALs' control.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Act of Valor' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and Relativity Media. This two disc edition includes one Region A locked BD50 as well as a DVD + Digital Copy disc. Pre-menu trailers include 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter', 'Get the Gringo', and a Fox ad about "The Blu-ray Experience".
'Act of Valor' HALO jumps onto Blu-ray with mostly successful AVC MPEG-4 encode, framed in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
Shot with a combination of traditional 35mm film cameras as well as a fleet of Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLRs, 'Act of Valor' provides a fantastic Blu-ray experience for upwards of 85 percent of the film's running time. Detail and resolution are exemplary, with a near 3D feel in terms of depth. The film's often-warm color palette is, and daytime exteriors are, the stuff for which HDTVs are made. Be prepared to see every glowing explosion and high caliber bullet flying through the air. Nighttime sequences are equally impressive (save for the purposely degraded "night vision" goggles POV shots), with inky blacks that don't crush as much as I expected.
However, the compressed DSLR source material provides for a few flaws. As one would expect, there's some minor instances of aliasing and banding that pop up occasionally. There are also some odd moments of motion blur and focus (see the night scenes in Costa Rica). The biggest problem is what I could best describe as a mid-range chroma shift. Meaning, bright spots and really dark regions of the film have no troubles, but in half-lit areas where it's not quite dark, but far from bright, vertical green and magenta blemish appear. I noted this problem mostly in the latter half of the film, from the Christo interrogation forward (look in the lower lit regions of Christo's face). The problem continued, and I can't quite tell if this is a production or Blu-ray issue (probably production), though HD recording can get messy when there isn't enough light. It's definitely distracting once your eye catches it.
'Act of Valor explodes onto Blu-ray with a dynamic and aggressive 5.1 DTS-HD MA surround sound track that matrixes out nicely into 7.1 for anyone using Dolby ProLogic IIx or IIz.
With the exception of some lost-in-the-noise dialog issues (also, this is one of those tracks where if you adjust the volume to hear the dialog clearly, when the action ramps up, things get crazy loud), 'Act of Valor' has everything an aggressive, immersive action movie soundtrack needs. Thundering LFE shakes things up when bombs bellow and .50 cals roar. The surround experience features excellent 360-degree effects panning to suck the audience into the bombastic action sequences. At the same time, quiet moments, like sneaking through the dark jungle, are equally immersive thanks to subtle insect and environmental noises.
While it might not be as detailed or exact as some of the recent 5-star audio reviews we've seen in 2012, and there are a few weaker transitional moments between music and dialog and effects, but overall, fans of the movie and those watching 'Act of Valor' for the first time should be very pleased with this track.
'Act of Valor' includes a standard set of special features, most of which are exclusive to the Blu-ray release and are listed in the section below. While the commentary and an interview (see below) are terrific, the overall package is neither outstanding nor lacking.
'Act of Valor' portrays Navy SEALs in a way never before seen in a fictionalized story. This action film features a number of thrilling sequences and a pretty good story overall. It's also a filmmaking experiment where they've traded Hollywood actors for the real thing, which makes for amazing action and somewhat stilted dialog scenes. Per the commentaries, the filmmakers are highly passionate and knowledgable about their subject matter, and while they do an admirable job communicating their enthusiasm and the excitement of battle, they stick to clichés and seem to forget that film audiences need more than facts, or "reality" on screen in order to emotionally connect with a fictional universe.
As a Blu-ray, 'Act of Valor' has a kick ass 5.1 DTS-HD MA surround sound track and, though sometimes problematic, a high quality video presentation. Special Features are boilerplate and a little thin, but the Blu-ray offers a noticeable upgrade over the DVD release, and fans will love the commentary track and the SEAL interviews. If you already love the movie, feel free to pick it up at the right price. For the rest, best to check it out in rental form first to see if you want repeat viewings, but it's definitely worth a look at least once.