'Act of Valor' mixes fact, fiction

Maybe you remember a TV commercial from some years back, in which an actor pitches an over-the-counter medication by advising viewers, "I'm not a doctor -- but I play one on TV."

Substitute "Navy SEAL" for "doctor," switch the slogan around and you'll have a pretty fair description of "Act of Valor," which features real-life Navy SEALs playing Navy SEALs on screen.

They're quite convincing in action, if not when acting as themselves.

Of course, plenty of audience members won't care one whit about the latter aspect, not when they can concentrate on (literally) explosive action sequences, complete with state-of-the-art weapons technology and real live bullets.

For some of us, though, a movie's not a movie -- not a good one, anyway -- without clearly delineated, fully developed characters worth caring about.

And "Act of Valor's" uneasy mixture of fact and fiction makes it tough to salute.

That's not to denigrate, in any way, the bravery or expertise represented by the active-duty SEALs the movie features.

But because it claims to be a real movie and not just a cinematic recruitment poster, "Act of Valor" should be judged as a real movie -- and, on that basis, it's a lot closer to "mission impossible" than "mission accomplished."

It's directed by former stuntmen Mike "Mouse" McCoy and Scott Waugh, whose credits include action-packed promotional videos for everything from Mountain Dew to the Naval Special Warfare Command, which oversaw the movie's production.

No wonder "Act of Valor" so often plays like a feature-length recruitment movie -- because that's how the project reportedly began.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Navy Special Warfare officials requested proposals for a SEALs movie designed to bolster recruitment, honor fallen team members -- and counteract memories (if there are any) of cocky Charlie Sheen in 1990's "Navy Seals."

It was only when McCoy and Waugh reported for duty, filming SEALs in training and interviewing them after hours, that they formulated the idea of casting real-life squad members in a fictional tale based on their actual exploits.

If only "Act of Valor" had gone the documentary route, it might have been an insightful as well as action-packed look at what SEALs do -- and, just as compellingly, why they do it.

Instead, the filmmakers recruited "300" screenwriter Kurt Johnstad to concoct a fictional storyline so predictable and routine you can call the action as it happens -- and sometimes even before it happens.

"Act of Valor" revolves around a SEAL team out to rescue an undercover CIA agent ("Without a Trace's" Roselyn Sanchez) who's been kidnapped by a drug smuggler's hired thugs.

That in turn leads the SEALs from the drug smuggler himself (Alex Veadov ) to the crazed Chechen jihadist (Dimiter Marinov ) he's bankrolling -- and said terrorist's plot to sneak suicide bombers across the Mexican border and into the United States, jeopardizing thousands of American lives.

Unless, of course, the globe-trotting SEALs can stop them.

And in a movie like "Act of Valor," how could there possibly be any doubt?

Real-life SEALs (who are not credited by name, in keeping with their team-spirit philosophy) demonstrate impressive expertise during the movie's big action sequences, which were filmed during Navy training exercises -- with live ammunition, from bullets to grenades.

So we get lots of authentically tense scenes of daring maneuvers -- in the jungle, on the open ocean, on the embattled streets of a Mexican border town. (To say nothing of the ships, submarines and helicopters needed to get the intrepid SEALs wherever they need to go.)

Directors McCoy and Waugh work hard to put us in the middle of the action, providing plenty of you-are-there "shaky-cam" imagery so we can share the ride.

Alas, we also get lots of strained, oh-so-serious dialogue, delivered in achingly sincere, undeniably wooden fashion, as our heroes -- chief among them Chief Dave and Lt. Rorke -- ponder doing their duty for their country. Even if that means they (and their families) must make the ultimate sacrifice.

There's just one problem with all of this. The SEALs may be real, but their performances never ring true.

It's not their fault, but they simply don't know how to express -- and, consequently, can't convey -- the sort of emotion that would enable us to feel with, as well as for, them.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.