The movie Act of Valor debuted last week, making $24.4 million in its opening weekend and bringing in $28.4 million in its first five days in the theaters. The action movie offers a unique twist to the genre: The main characters, a Navy SEAL team, are played by actual active-duty Navy SEALs. Director Mike “Mouse” McCoy touts the movie as a new genre of film, “the authentic action film.”
On the film-review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, only 30 percent of professional critics gave Act of Valor a good review, while 86 percent of site users said they liked it. Some of this is self-selection, of course; if an ordinary moviegoer doesn’t want to watch a particular movie, he’ll just avoid it.
But the criticism of a movie that set out to offer unparalleled realism has taken an unexpected direction. It seems some critics find it . . . not all that believable.
Does it seem ironic to find Richard Corliss of Time calling a movie starring professional military men “amateurish”?
Does he mean that those behind the camera are amateurish? But large chunks of the cinematography feel straight out of well-reviewed action movies like the Jason Bourne series. Take the opening scene, in which the cameraman jumps out of the plane with the SEALs during training — a high-altitude, low-opening parachute jump — or the scene giving us the view from the front of a motorcycle weaving through the crowded streets of Manila. A lot of the action sequences are quite well edited; they maintain the strangely lost art of making sure the audience can tell where everyone is in relation to everyone else, and what’s happening moment to moment. There’s a reason people joke that the Transformers series looks as if the film was edited with a food processor.
The sound editing? During the action scenes the movie will pause and let us hear only the breathing of the SEALs.
Corliss sneers of the villains, “Virtually all ethnic and religious stereotypes are represented, including one that hasn’t been seen much in movies lately: the avaricious, hook-nosed Jew. That’s Cristo [sic], whose merger with Shadad may be meant to show that Muslims and Jews can work together. Alert Iran.”
There is much that needs to be unpacked here.
First, what is “stereotypical” about a Chechen jihadist? It was not long ago (2008) that there were complaints that Hollywood had entirely ignored Chechnya. When did that character become stereotypical?
Or would Corliss deem the Central American and Mexican drug cartels in the film stereotypical? Should the filmmakers have pretended that these groups don’t exist? Should the plot have involved an effort to sneak across the border from Canada in order to seem more original?
The character of Christo appears to be inspired by one of several notorious smugglers and arms dealers from Ukraine in recent history. (Ukraine is the eleventh-largest arms exporter in the world.) One is Victor Bout (the inspiration for the film Lord of War); Bout was born in the Tajik region of the Soviet Union, but some intelligence sources have indicated that his heritage was Ukrainian. Leonid Minin was another notorious international arms smuggler, also Ukrainian. A third is Semion Mogilevich, a Ukrainian-born organized-crime boss tied to many criminal enterprises around the world, and one of the FBI’s Ten Most-Wanted Criminals. Mogilevich and Minin are reportedly of Jewish heritage, and Bout is rumored to be Jewish.
As for Christo’s faith, it comes up precisely as one might expect: The SEALs express surprise that a Jew would work with a jihadist, but then shrug and get down to business. There is no indication that Christo is religious or any suggestion that he is representative of Jews as a whole. As for the movie’s notion of the Ukrainian Jew and the Chechen growing up together, relocation of ethnic groups under Stalin began in earnest in the 1930s and continued to the 1950s, including in Ukraine and Chechnya.