Gritty realism is the name of the game for 2012’s Act of Valor. For the production, directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh set out to create the most true-to-life cinematic depiction of war combat to date as well as paint a realistic portrait of America’s Navy SEALs. To achieve this, the directors recruited real-life, active SEALs to play the protagonists, who brought to the project all of their collective knowledge about operating procedures and battles that ordinary writers would have to spend years researching. Shy of enlisting, Act of Valor is the closest that movie-goers will come to experiencing what it’s like to be on the lam alongside Navy SEALs, but the film unfortunately lacks humanity and substance. Its narrative is drab and borderline incomprehensible, and the SEALs themselves are stilted performers.

When a CIA agent (Sanchez) is kidnapped by drug smuggler-come-arms dealer Chriso (Veadov), an elite team of Navy SEALs are dispatched on a rescue mission. Upon moving in and recovering the hostage, though, the SEALs begin to unravel a devastating terrorist plot involving an army of suicide bombers carrying undetectable explosives who plan to take down iconic U.S. landmarks. This compels the SEAL squad into action, setting out on a worldwide tour to apprehend the terrorists before it’s too late.

Comparisons between Act of Valor and the likes of Call of Duty are not unwarranted – the movie’s narrative logic is akin to that of a video game, and, whenever the squad are engaged in combat, there are several shots from the points of view of various SEALs which resemble something from a first-person shooter. Reportedly, the filmmakers largely used live ammunition while filming the action scenes. This may seem like a silly risk, but it effectively augments the sense of immediacy since it genuinely looks as if guns are being discharged. The film earns its R rating, too, as it pulls no punches when it comes to portraying the realities of a fire-fight. This is one of the most realistic and breathtaking depictions of combat in a film to date, alongside Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down. The fact that this technical magnificence was accomplished for a scant $12 million is nothing short of a miracle. Apparently, too, pretty much nothing in the film is CGI – most everything in the frame (aside from a handful of blood splatters) was executed with old-fashioned practical effects, and this works in the film’s favour. Indeed, Act of Valor is a true ’80s picture in spirit, though the at times distractingly frenetic camerawork is a bit too much on the modern side.

Unfortunately, Act of Valor offers very little to grasp onto between the action sequences, as it lacks humanity. Dialogue is often stale, and the SEALs perpetually remain empty ciphers devoid of personality traits. The attempts to give these guys dimension seem half-hearted, too, and as a result none of them ever come across as flesh-and-blood humans. Since the characters are so underdeveloped, the action scenes do not possess the feeling of jeopardy and nail-biting tension that could have catapulted the film to excellence. Furthermore, the story’s progressions don’t entirely mesh – the script plays out more in line with Mission: Impossible or 24. Navy SEALs only handle individual missions in real-life, yet Act of Valor shows them to be a squad of determined Ethan Hunts and Jack Bauers who foil super-villains as they trot across the globe.

You have got to hand it to Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh: their decision to cast actual Navy SEALs was a great idea in theory. The depiction of the way that they operate is spot-on, and it’s fascinating to watch this stuff and absorb all of the tiny nuances of modern military operations. At the end of the day, though, Navy SEAL operatives are not actors, and this fact is really obvious. Their terse dialogue in action sounds pitch-perfect, but only because they’re meant to sound so wooden in such instances. The intimate, dialogue-heavy scenes, on the other hand, are incredibly boring. The effort to make the protagonists interesting is appreciated, but the result is tedious.

A lot of critics have dismissed Act of Valor as a jingoistic affair that just feels like an army recruitment tool, but, to the film’s credit, it doesn’t contain the cheesy bravado or the over-the-top patriotism of more commercial Hollywood blockbusters (see The Delta Force). Still, Act of Valor is not perfect. It has a handful of must-see action scenes, yet interest wanes whenever it trudges through expositional patches. It’s a somewhat unsuccessful cinematic experiment, though it’s not entirely without merit.