Although there will always be something primal and urgent about action movies that connects with their fans on a visceral level, the authenticity their execution has varied wildly throughout the years. Some are highly stylized, exaggerated adventures as exhilarating as they are detached from any tangible reality, and others exude a chilling believability that makes viewers recoil even as they grow more invested. And on last Friday, Relativity Media took a little from column A and a little from column B for “Act of Valor,” a military adventure starring real, active-duty Navy SEALs whose “realism” will strike some as riveting and others as risible.
But Navy SEALs have been portrayed on film several times in the past, perhaps most notably in the film of the same name, “Navy SEALs.” The 1990 film, directed by Lewis Teague, mythologizes the “off-the-books” branch while taking pages from the playbooks of almost every military movie in the previous decade, which is probably one of the big reasons why it was poorly received upon its initial release. But two-plus decades later, was it more prescient or accurate or just plain entertaining that audiences once thought it was? This week’s “Shelf Life” investigates to find out.
Released July 20, 1990, “Navy SEALs” was not a commercial success; although it debuted in theaters at No. 4 at the box office, it earned little bit more than $25 million during its theatrical run. No numbers are available for its home video revenues, but by all accounts it was more successful there. Meanwhile, the film earned only a 19 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, receiving four positive reviews and 17 negative ones.
What Still Works
The irony of my statement about it being derivative above is that “Navy SEALs” probably works best as a nostalgia piece, a portrait of where action movies were at by 1990 – or ones without high-profile stars or directors, anyway. After all, it almost exclusively stars actors whom audiences identified with military-themed movies – Charlie Sheen (“Platoon”), Michael Biehn (“The Terminator,” “Aliens”), Rick Rossovich (“Top Gun”) and Bill Paxton (“Aliens”) – and it exhibits the last vestiges of ‘80s leading-man super-heroics that in many ways helped its predecessors become such iconic pieces of entertainment.
“Top Gun” is the movie’s most obvious template, as much because of the character dynamic between Sheen’s Dale Hawkins and the rest of his team as the film’s dubious if frequently amusing attribution of accuracy to its story. Like “Top Gun” it’s less propaganda than a masturbatory celebrations of the military, and it offers an ennobling look at the lives and careers of soldiers, chronicling both their heroism in action and their camaraderie off the battlefield.
Conversely, Biehn’s seeming inability (at least at that time in his career) to play a character capable of real joy or lightheartedness works like gangbusters for his character, whose control over Hawkins is tenuous at best despite the ongoing realization that what he and his men are fighting for is nothing to be dismissed or looked down upon. Plus, he lives on a houseboat, which is one of the greater action-movie clichés of all time.
And while I’ll always have a soft spot for practical effects, the film’s set pieces are genuinely impressive, especially during the finale, in which the producers created a rich and detailed battle zone for the heroes to fight through. And even if Sheen and the rest did none of their own stunts (the big ones, anyway), there are a couple of cool little gags in the film, such as when Sheen’s character jumps out of a moving jeep, off of a bridge, into a river, and when the character later chases down a tow truck, jumps onto the bed, releases his car, and drives backwards in order to rescue his car without being smashed to bits by an oncoming 18-wheeler.
What Doesn’t Work
Particularly in retrospect, the film’s cartoonish sense of individualism. While the choice to make Maverick a “hot shot who lives fast and plays by his own rules” not only made Tom Cruise a bona fide star but worked enormously well within the confines of that story, Sheen’s character is no Maverick, and by the third or fourth mission he goes on in the film, he would, or at least should have been punished for outright insubordination. At one point Hawkins’ disobedience gets one of his team members killed, and it’s almost as if you can hear the break of dawn of the Age of Entitlement, where now characters (much less people) aren’t required to atone or sometimes even acknowledge their mistake; while he admits he “fucked up,” there’s never really any catharsis or payoff to the realization that him not doing his job right ended with someone else literally being killed, and even at the end, his defiance is looked at ambivalently, if not embraced via his decision to go back in (against orders) and rescue a superior officer.
Hawkins’ insubordination is unfortunately the tip of a very large iceberg in terms of the film’s egregious inaccuracies, all of which are discernible to even the most casual viewer. In battle, none of the soldiers wear helmets, instead donning do-rags or nothing at all, and their strategies in the field are feeble-minded at best, and consistently are created with seemingly complete ignorance of the particulars of the assignment, who they might see, how to handle situations, or what sort of opposition they might encounter.
Finally, the dialogue isn’t just on the nose, it’s in it: after a rescued pilot tells the team “you guys are amazing,” Biehn says, “there’s no reason to thank us. We don’t exist. This never happened.” And when it’s not stupidly underscoring plot points or highlighting subtext, the dialogue is often comprised of one-liners that aren’t even clever, such as when Biehn tells Sheen to cool it. Sheen responds, “I’m cool – you should see me when I’m hot!”
“Navy SEALs” isn’t an outright bad film – it would need to be more ambitious to have failed so nobly – but in general it’s pretty boring and consistently mediocre. That doesn’t necessarily to do with the performances as much as it does the script, which is assembled largely from ‘80s blockbuster clichés and the thinnest pretense of real-world accuracy, which is why it hasn’t endured as one of the great thrillers of its era. All in all, “Navy SEALs” is too bland and unexciting to inspire much love or hate – which is probably why a movie like “Act of Valor” can come along, champion its military bona fides with confidence, and somehow not feel like a sorry follow-up.
Leave your own impressions of “Navy SEALs” in the comments below!