Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Call of Duty: The Movie. Act of Valour may look like the sort of pro-military visual orgy that Michael Bay would more often than not end up as producer on, but it in fact has another gimmick up its sleeve that is altogether its own. The entire cast of war heroes in this film are in fact real Navy Seals, the very soldiers who have inspired countless shoot ‘em up video games, and as is to be expected, their involvement is both a blessing and a curse for this stylish yet rote action war film.
Narrative does not figure much in Act of Valour. The crux of the plot consists of several garden variety missions which could have been ripped from just about any level in a counterpart video game, be it extracting a kidnapped contact or finally, stopping a gang of 15 suicide bombers from entering the U.S. via the Mexican border with bomb vests which can pass through metal detectors. Nevertheless, the film is, I expect, destined to become something of a guilty pleasure among knowing gamers who can appreciate its stylistic veracity while deriving a perverse, ironic sense of gratification from the pic’s inherent boneheadedness.
Indeed, plot is scant, and the Seals themselves convey the bare minimum to get by, perhaps a move not only one of economy but also to spare the Seals any undue embarrassment. While the charismatic Chief of the Seals might have a second career waiting for him, the rest might not want to quit the day jobs at which they are so adept. As was probably not the intention of the filmmakers, the most intriguing characters turn out to be the colourful, cartoonish villains, particularly Christo, played by Alex Veadov, who just so happens to have provided voice work on the Call of Duty video games.
While an effort – and far too much of one – is made for us to care about the chequered personal lives of the Seals, we mostly see them here as little more than ruthlessly efficient killing machines. They effortlessly dispense with their stereotypically attired, beardy, and more often than not bald foes en masse amid a baffling albeit amusing video game aesthetic. What gamers will familiarly refer to as a HUD (that’s a heads-up display to the rest of you) is frequently employed; on-screen graphics relay the most pertinent information, such as globe-trotting scene transitions (because dialogue is just a waste of time), and most alarmingly, character introductions, because developing them as humans rather than names out of a file is just too much effort, apparently. Ironically, some of the more “cinematic” moments from the Call of Duty games are employed here – such as one mortally wounded character going into “Last Stand” mode, complete with a first-person view – in their strangeness actually turn out to be alienating, and draw us out of the otherwise intense action.
And that is the sole reason to praise Act of Valour; it is a staggering, beautifully photographed depiction of the carnage of war. Astoundingly shot for reportedly only $12m, one can imagine that the Seals were only too eager to lend the filmmakers plenty of their destructive toys for what is essentially a very good-looking recruitment ad. Shane Hurlbut, most famous for his fracas with Christian Bale on the Terminator Salvation set, shoots the film with an inspired ingenuity, keeping firefights frantic with close-quarters coverage, and some amusing if overused first-person footage. The film’s thunderous sound design is also worthy of particular praise.
Some of the directorial choices during the more visceral peaks of the action scenes are rather questionable, though; a late-day moment of self-sacrifice feels especially miscalculated in all of its slow-motion non-glory. Nevertheless, there’s an ever-so-slightly more subtle hand dealt to the narrative than is to be expected; while the filmmakers evidently cannot resist leaving things on an optimistic note that many who watch the film will be inspired to sign up to the armed forces, it is also slightly uplifting and not as forceful as is to be anticipated
There’s something to be said for the film’s hilarious audacity, the complete lack of irony and self-awareness with which it comports itself. It is a visceral, visual feast throughout the set pieces, but it suffers crucially by way of a plot lacking coherence and some highly suspect Navy Seal non-actors.
Act of Valour is out now in US cinemas but not released until March 23rd in the UK.
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