Sunday, October 28, 2012

Act of Video Game Valor



I am not what you would call much of a "movie goer".  Never was, for that matter.  Rather, I am the type of person whom would much rather wait a few months so I can watch a movie in the comfort of my home instead of in a sticky-floored, teenager-chatting movie theater...and for top dollar, no less.  No thanks,  I can wait.

This is why I have just gotten around to seeing the actioner, Act of Valor (AoV).  When I first heard the pitch for this movie, I was excited:

When a covert mission to rescue a kidnapped CIA operative uncovers a chilling plot, elite, highly-trained U.S. SEAL teams speed to hotspots around the globe, racing against the clock to stop a deadly terrorist attack. Pulse-pounding combat sequences, cutting-edge battlefield technology and raw emotion fuel this unprecedented blend of real-world heroism and original filmmaking -- a thrilling tribute to the skills, courage and tenacity of the world's most revered warriors.

This sounds just like what the doctored ordered in these counter-terrorist times.



Really, it is amazing that Hollyweird has offered so few movies that deal with the type of situations that our spec op forces must contend with on what I suspect is a daily basis.  Where are the movie versions of First In, No Easy Day, and Lions of Kandahar (okay, we are getting a movie version of Zero Dark Thirty, but that is only because of the Obama connection)? For an interesting experiment, compare the number of patriotic movies that deal with the War on Terror with the same number made during World War II.  So much for the theory that Hollywood is just a business looking to cash in on popular themes.... 

So I was stoked to see Act of Valor.  But then I read this blurb:

Go "down range" with real, active-duty Navy SEALs [emphasis added] in Act Of Valor, the adrenaline-fueled action-adventure that inserts you into the heart of the battle, alongside America's best and bravest.

Right away I started to have misgivings.  While I have nothing but respect for our soldiers in uniform, actors they are not.  By putting soldiers (i.e., non-professional thespians) in the lead, I feared this movie had already shot itself in the foot - pun intended.  But, then again, maybe I was just being too pessimistic.   Maybe the active duty SEALs were just going to star as bit players in larger action sequences to be carried by a professional cadre of actors?

Unfortunately, no.

My worst fears came true:  this movie utilizes actual SEALs in leading, dialogue heavy roles...and it shows.    From the movie's first moments of plodding narration, to the final action scene, all the acting is amateurish at best, so much so that Act of Valor feels less like a movie made for the cinema, and more like one of those armed forces recruiting vids shown to high school kids on Career Day. It is that bad.  I would even go so far as to say that I suffered through this movie's 110 painful minutes.

The bad acting is made all the worse by its threadbare plot.  While I was expecting a movie that benefited from the "real-world" experience of these SEALs, instead I got a story about a vague Russian-financed Chechen terrorist bent on unleashing suicide vest terror upon the American homeland.  While the premise is sound, it is very poorly developed  and ultimately arrives with the superficial depth of the typical plot found in a Call of Duty title (how I wish Tom Clancy's detail-heavy pen was around to write this script!).  In fact, this is exactly how AoV operates: this paper thin plot is little more than a pretext for the SEALs to display their military prowess via a series of what are, ultimately, live fire exercises.  So, just like in Call of Duty where the primary purpose of the story is to serve as a pretext for the player to get his Rambo on, the plot in AoV is just there as an excuse for the SEALs to 'wow' us in a variety of spec op scenarios.

Now, to be sure, these action sequences were pretty darn good.  Unlike the belly-laugh inducing action sequences found in most big budget movies today, these sequences really did have a gritty realism to them that other movies lack.  Unfortunately, even here AoV drops the ball by insisting on having the camera switch to a first person perspective for some key action sequences, something you can see in the following teaser:


Ironically, I find nothing ruins my immersion in a film like a jarring switch to a first person perspective ("Wait, now I am in the movie?!?"). Such a perspective is fine in a shooter, but not in a movie where I am most definitely NOT the star.

With all this in mind, I have no choice but to conclude that Act of Valor is a pretty poor flick.   I was hoping for a sort of Rainbow Six, but instead got Call of Duty: The Youtube Movie. Even though nothing would have made me happier than to recommend such a patriotic film to everyone I know, all I can honestly do is give it a 2/5 and move on.

However, Act of Valor was good for something: it did get me thinking about the relationship between video games and real warfare.

For example, ever notice how whenever the topic of war is brought up in a conversation, and some video game jokey tries to make a point about combat by using a video game as an analogy,  inevitably some indignant dilettante of the military arts pops up and loudly exclaims "War is not like some stupid video game, son!"?  Well, if AoV is to be trusted, war is just like most video games these days. 

That statement should not be as shocking as it sounds because we have come a long way from war games that look like this:

Bonus points if you can identify this classic game




 Instead, video war games now look like this:

Battlefield 3


And they don't just look real, they sound darn real, too.  And often utilize real world ballistics.  And are often made with the help of military personal.  And, indeed, are even sometimes derived from the very same war games used by the military. In other words, war games on the modern PC / console often get a realism bashing they do not deserve.  Even the US Army came to this conclusion a number of years ago when they got into the games business themselves (and here, too). 

Judging by Act of Valor, modern first person shooters are darn good at capturing the high intensity essence of infantry-based warfare, which I guess is why  many vets can often be found playing them.  In fact, because most dedicated shooter fans are pretty darn knowledgeable about modern military ops, the average AAA shooter is light years more accurate in capturing the deadly essence of combat than about 99% of the war flicks churned out by Hollywood these days  - which begs the question why so many still use war movies as the realism benchmark for combat (I think this is due to the generation gap that divides gamers and non-gamers).

For example, here is a video clip from EA/DICE's shooter Battlefield 3 (which is the place to start if you are a new to the shooter genre and are looking for a good mix of realism and fun):

I actually made this recording

See what I mean about how modern shooters do a darn good job of capturing the deadly nature of combat?

Of course, if you really want to kick things up a notch in the realism department, Arma 2, the civilian version of the professional military sim VBS 2, has what you are looking for...if you are willing to brave a steep learning curve:


Even the (undeserved) punching bag of the shooter community, Call of Duty, can offer some pretty intense moments of spec op combat.  The following is from the single player campaign, and seems ripped from a movie like AoV:



The important point here is that the modern shooter has done a pretty darn good job of capturing the nature of infantry ops - as attested to by the SEAL approved Act of Valor.  So the next time someone scoffs when you say that you believe your experiences on the virtual battlefield can help inform you on real world military ops, don't get embarrassed.  You are correct!  Instead, ask them what they are basing their military acumen on.  If it is anything less than real world military experience, the odds are that as a video game warrior, you probably are better informed than those who get all their militaria info from Hollywood movies or TV shows. 

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