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Act of Valor: Propaganda for the US Navy in the Form of an Action Film
Don’t let the packaging fool you, Act of Valor is a recruitment video and a propaganda piece for the US Navy; not the benign slice of entertainment it makes itself out to be. For one, the film’s cast is made up of a mix of actors and real life Navy SEALs and while it makes for a cool gimmick – real life action heroes and all that – it just makes the propaganda feel that much more potent. On the whole the actors are pretty decent however they lack comfort in front of the camera. Their lines are kind of stilted, not enough to ruin the film but enough to prevent you from connecting with the characters.
The film deals heavily in clichés, the biggest of which being its choice of villains. It ingeniously lumps together America’s two biggest threats historically - Russians and Islamic ‘Jihadists’- giving us two bad guys; a Russian drug dealer name Christo (Veadov), who isn’t above murdering children; and Shabal (Cottle), his childhood friend who converted to Islam and promptly became an Al Qaida type of terrorist. And just to balance out the scales, the lead is also a complete cliché. He’s a goodhearted Caucasian, with a pregnant wife, whose idea of having a good time is hanging out on the beach surfing with his Navy SEAL buddies and their families.
The film milks his situation for all it’s worth; focusing on the fact that he’s protecting his country despite the danger involved and despite the fact that he may never see his unborn child. It’s a noble sentiment but not when it’s forced down your throat and not when it’s in such a biased context. The film is so out of touch with reality that during an interrogation scene, the US commander promises Christo that if he doesn’t cooperate, he’d be locked up but not harmed physically. His only punishment would supposedly be missing out on his wife and daughter’s lives. While we weren’t expecting the film to portray the evils of the American military system, a little nuance of the truth would’ve been nice.
On the bright side, the film has some pretty decent action scenes which make up most of the story. The film’s basic setup revolves around retrieving a kidnapped CIA agent who uncovered the link between Christo and Shabal. Once they get her back, they discover that the duo are smuggling a gang of suicide bombers into the US, wearing high tech explosive vests that can pass through metal detectors without setting off the alarm. Their mission evolves into finding and preventing the gang from entering the US and setting off a national hysteria reminiscent of 9/11. While there’s a ton of the usual gunfights and stakeouts, if the film’s portrayal of the Navy SEALs’ activities is anything to go by, skydiving is apparently an integral part of their lives and it honestly looks pretty sweet. The action sequences are full of close ups and over the shoulder shots designed to make it feel more real and, for the most part, it succeeds.
Despite the decent action sequences, it’s impossible to ignore or overlook the film’s politics. In this era of the ‘War on Terror’ you just can’t get away with things that are blatantly untrue. It’s quite unsettling; the film rewrites history and glorifies war to a completely unacceptable degree.
Despite its potentially juicy political premise and Nic Cage’s relatively solid performance – more on that later - Austin Stark’s The Runner ends up being a poor-man’s version of politically-charged TV shows such as House of Cards and Scandal.
The Runner follows the story of idealistic Louisiana congressman, Colin Price (Cage) who, in the wake of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, is working hard on rebuilding his community, both financially and morally. After giving a passionate speech about the scandal, Colin soon finds himself making headlines and with the encouragement from consultants, Frank (Pierce) and Kate (Paulson), the pathway to a seat at the senate soon opens.
However, his celebrity status and reputation in the community is blemished by the discovery of an affair with the wife of a local fisherman – indiscreetly caught on a CCTV video footage – ultimately, painting the congressman in the worst of lights as he tries to put together the pieces of his shattered life.
The film marks the directorial debut of New York-born indie filmmaker Austin Stark – his producing portfolio includes films such as Happythankyoumoreplease and Detachment – and as far as first-time features go, The Runner is not the worst of its kind.
Playing out like a docu-drama, the plot is intriguing enough and there are plenty of moments of both despair and hope throughout. However, the story’s lack of energy is The Runner’s major flaw, as no matter how interesting its premise may be, there just isn’t enough oomph to get it to the finish line.
Despite its poor pacing and several loose subplots, it’s Cage’s relatively believable performance of a down-in-the-gutter politico looking for redemption that keeps The Runner from falling apart. It’s not an Oscar-worthy performance by any stretch of the imagination, but one can’t help give credit where it’s due with a man that has often found himself a figure of ridicule.
The lingering effect of Sicario’s unrelenting and pitiless sense of anxiety will stay with its viewers long after it leaves the screen. Directed by Denis Villeneuve – see Prisoners – and astutely written by the T.V actor and first-time scripter Taylor Sheridan, this is one beautifully shot and tension-ridden action thriller that captures the reality – and cruelty – of the forever-ongoing war on drugs along the Southern US borders.
The story is centered on Kate Macer (Blunt); a skillful FBI agent who has been working on the agency’s kidnap response task force for the past three years. After successfully tracking leads in a kidnapping case, Kate and her team soon make the shocking discovery of a house full of dead bodies sealed within the house’s walls, leaving Kate and partner, Reggie (Kaluuya) wanting to seek justice for the crime.
The atrocious offence seem to be directly linked to a Mexican drug cartel organization, which Kate is soon tasked to track down and investigate in a covert operation across the border, with Department of Defense head, Matt Graves (Brolin). Unaware of what she’s getting herself into, Kate’s idealistic views on justice are soon challenged when she’s paired with a mysterious – and super silent – special-forces soldier named Alejandro (Del Toro) whose motives in the takedown of the Mexican kingpin Fausto (Cedillo) is unclear.
Boasting striking cinematography – courtesy of the twelve-time Oscar-nominee Roger Deakins – Sicario is one seemingly dark and poetic piece of cinema which has the power to entertain and horrify at the same time. Its far-reaching, bird-view shots of the vast and eerily empty Arizona desert - as well as the precarious and fraudulent streets of Juarez, Mexico – is captivating and demanding of attention; peeling your eyes away from the screen is not so easy to do.
Keeping its intentions well-hidden, the script is complex, twisted and action-heavy; the scene of vehicles whizzing through the streets of Juarez is nerve-racking and intimidating to watch unfold, with Villeneuve using the silence as the base for the startling and sudden bursts of action.
Anchoring the film with an intense and fiercely committed performance is The Devil Wears Prada’s very own Emily Blunt, who is absolutely superb as the idealistic FBI agent whose somewhat naïve and unrealistic views come crushing down right before our very eyes. Watching her unravel beneath all of the cruelty and injustice involved with the underground drug-war, is satisfying and often heartbreaking to watch while her co-stars, including Brolin as the super cocky head of mission and Del Toro as the mysterious war dog, both did their parts with a fittingly unswerving and dedicated attitude.
Exceptionally silent and disturbing, Sicario – which translates to ‘assassin’ – is an outstanding piece of art and an intriguing action-thriller that questions human decency, morality and ethics when faced with a life-or-death situation. It’s a must, must-see of the year.