Tag Archives: C-

ACT OF VALOR

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Men of action is not the same thing as men of acting, as this film about the Navy SEALs in the post-9/11 world makes clear. The producer-directors of the picture, Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh, appear in a brief prologue to discuss, among other things, their decision to employ active-duty (and unidentified) SEALs in the leads rather than actors; they argue that only by doing so could they capture the emotional range of the characters. That’s nonsense, of course, and an insult to the acting profession. And its inaccuracy is demonstrated in a scene the director points to—the one where the men bid goodbye to their families as they go on a dangerous mission. If this were a documentary capturing a real moment, the effect would certainly be powerful; but here, as the warriors, their wives and children try to replicate such an episode before the camera, the flat line readings and stiff performances undermine the impact. The defect is exacerbated by the writer Kurt Johnstad’s decision to employ narration throughout, a text filled with purple prose delivered in dull monotone by one of the men.

That means that all of the expository scenes in “Act of Valor” are really pretty bad. But the action ones have visceral energy, though even in this respect it falls short of a many war films that have choreographed their fighting scenes with greater clarity and precision. And the entirely fictional plot that’s been devised to showcase them has no subtlety whatever. It begins with a mission to rescue a captured female undercover agent who’s been investigating a shady arms dealer in Costa Rica. That involves a raid on a well-guarded jungle compound (though it’s never made clear how the location was ever determined), complete with firefights, car chases and some speeding gunboats and helicopters.

The success of that operation in turn leads to another, since intelligence derived from it discloses a plot by a fanatical terrorist (Jason Cottle), who’s already killed an American ambassador and a passel of children in a bomb attack, to infiltrate a slew of suicide bombers across the Mexican border into the US, where they will detonate vests equipped with undetectable plastic explosives in crowded areas. Working with Mexican police headed by a steely leader (Nestor Serrano), the SEALs first launch an assault on an island staging area off the coast and then a desperate effort to prevent the surviving terrorists from entering the States via tunnels—which also brings them up against the forces of a Mexican drug lord. The picture closes with a funeral eulogizing one of the men lost in the operation, followed by a list of SEALs actually killed in missions conducted since 9/11, to whom it’s dedicated.

Under these circumstances it might seem churlish to criticize, but unfortunately “Act of Valor” too often comes across as hackneyed and amateurish. The SEALs who play the leads are certainly convincing in the action sequences, but can’t carry the dialogue ones with any conviction. (To be fair, veteran actors would have trouble dealing with the cornball dialogue provided by Johnstad, a co-scripter of “300.”) And the professionals who are involved in other roles—like Roselyn Sanchez as the captured (and tortured) agent, or Alex Veadov and Cottle as the villains, or Serrano as the Mexican cop—don’t fare appreciably better. Veadov and Cottle, in particular, suffer from characterizations that make the bad-guy posturing of the nasties in such pulpy exercises as the “Die Hard” movies look positively multifaceted by comparison.

As emphasis on the use of Special Forces accelerates in today’s military, a tribute to the courage of the SEALs is certainly appropriate. And it must be said that “Act of Valor” is less meretricious than Louis Teague’s ludicrous 1990 movie about them, which enthusiastically embraced every Hollywood war-picture cliché of its time while finding Charlie Sheen giving what was probably his most embarrassing performance prior to his recent public meltdown. But this picture is actually no less cliché-ridden than that one, and as a film rather than an encomium, it leaves much to be desired.

THE AMERICAN

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The folks at Focus Features have kept “The American” pretty much under wraps until opening day, and as it turns out, understandably so. The film is being marketed as a “Bourne”-style adrenaline rush, but in actuality it’s a stately existential examination of a man at the end of his rope, and though it stars George Clooney (and despite the title), its sensibility is thoroughly European. Offering more angst than action, it creates a mood of overwhelming depression that’s all too likely to engulf the audience as well as the protagonist.

Clooney, stifling his natural charisma in favor of clenched-jawed grimness, plays a fellow known only as Jack, who’s first seen in snowbound Scandinavia snuggling with a woman (Irina Bjorklund) in a remote cabin. When they go out for a walk, they’re ambushed by a couple of assassins, whom Jack dispatches with practiced skill. But he also kills the woman.

He is, you see, some sort of international hit-man with a facility, we later learn, in manufacturing specialty weapons from scratch. And when he contacts his boss (impassive Johan Leysen) and tells him about his near-escape, he’s told to proceed to a small mountainside town in Italy where he’ll make a rifle for a beautiful but deadly client (Thekla Reuten). There, in addition to methodically constructing the gun, he wards off another would-be assassin while engaging in conversations about life and death with the local priest (Pacio Bonacelli, whose accent makes some of his dialogue hard to decipher), a gregarious fellow who admits to having fathered a number of sons, and in a romance with a voluptuous prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido, pretty and happy to disrobe).

There are a few action sequences in “The American”—the opening shoot-out, the chase between Jack and his would-be killer down the stairs of the village’s twisty narrow streets. But for the most part the picture focuses on the man’s gloomy realization that he can’t trust anyone, and consists of endless shots of Clooney brooding as he walks the cobblestones, fashions the gun or wonders about the motivation of his boss and their client. The script by Rowan Joffe, based on a novel by Martin Booth, is pretty short on dialogue, but the little there is can be pretty obvious. The point is all too clear when Father Benedetto remarks during one of their discussions that Jack is “in hell,” and Clara later calls the idyllic spot where Jack takes her for a picnic (and where he’s earlier tested his rifle) “paradise.” And on several occasions Jack is referred to as “Mr. Butterfly”—after a critter that lives but a brief time. Yeah, we get it, and the ending doesn’t disappoint our expectations.

Still, it’s easy to understand why this piece, as lugubrious and inert as it is, attracted the attention of director Anton Corbijn, who began his career as a still photographer and cover designer. The location is a striking one—the first shot of the terraced village on the side of the mountain, the church steeple rising at the top, is beautifully composed, and throughout one senses a keen eye at work (the cinematography is by Martin Ruhe). He doesn’t show nearly as much aptitude in choreographing the action moments or generating suspense in quieter ones as he does in fashioning careful compositions, but his visual sense is obvious.

It’s also understandable why Clooney took to the project. He did so partly for philanthropic reasons—L’Aquila, near the filming site, had recently been damaged in an earthquake, and the shoot brought much-needed funds into the area. But the actor periodically gravitates to films that subvert genre expectations, usually to unfortunate effect. In that respect, “The American” is to the spy thriller what “Solaris” was to science fiction pictures.

You’ve been warned.