In its latest effort to add even more realism to movies, Hollywood has been crafting whole films around non-actors: professionals whose real-life craft or skill-set matches the character, but who have never acted in a movie before.  After watching two of the most recent offerings in this genre, “Act of Valor” and “Haywire, I posit that this device holds potential, but still has bugs to be worked out.

“Act of Valor” is a story about Navy Seals completing a series of deadly missions to thwart a terrorist attack on the U.S. Homeland.  The dialogue/banter between soldiers during mission scenes is authentic – it’s evident that these “actors” know and speak this jargon regularly, so it all comes off as realistic.  This goes for the physical action in these mission scenes as well.  It all has the look and feel of a documentary, like a cameraman had tagged along on some real Navy Seal missions.  The action is often shown from the point-of-view of a soldier, which, negatively, brought to mind images of first-person shooter video games.  But I inferred instead that the intended effect of these shots was to show the kind of bravery it takes to walk into a hostile house or building, knowing that gunmen will pop out from around any corner at any moment to shoot you (most war video games are based on real life, after all).  In that case, I felt patriotically compelled to accept the camera work as a kind of testament to our soldiers’ bravery.

The deficiency I could not overlook, however, was the bad acting early in the movie.  It simply took me out of the movie.  God love ’em, those Seals tried really hard to slow down their words and emote with their eyes, but they’re not actors and the camera doesn’t lie.  The opening scenes of exposition that focused on the soldiers’ private lives were downright painful.  After about 15 minutes I didn’t think I’d be able to sit through the whole movie, except that the action scenes started at that point and never really stopped – and as I said, the action scenes were very good, in large part because the main players were real soldiers.

“Haywire” is an action film by Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, starring female MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) star and first-time actor, Gina Carano.  In casting the rest of the movie, it seems that Soderbergh was perhaps trying to offset the assumed acting insufficiency of his main star: Carano ‘s supporting ensemble includes Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Bill Paxton, Channing Tatum.  These are some heavy-hitting actors and it’s seductive watching them swirl around the intriguing, sexy cinematic oddity that is Carano.

Again, some of the early scenes that were heavy on dialogue revealed that Carano still needs serious acting lessons, but Soderbergh’s artsy direction and the strength of the supporting cast carried the movie to the second 2/3, which could almost be considered a silent action movie. Once we know what Carano’s character needs to accomplish, we sit back and watch her do it in what is an amazing physical performance.  Carano is fascinating to watch and it will be interesting to see what kind of a niche she carves out for herself in Hollywood.

Authentic physicality and shop-talk dialogue seem to be the upsides to casting non-actors – fixing that non-acting thing is the potentially movie-ruining downside.  Quite a gamble.