The Bin Laden Boom

24 REP Act of Valor
Courtesy of Navy SEALs

Relativity paid $13 million for "Act of Valor" and plans a 2012 release.

A Navy recruitment video morphs into a potential blockbuster starring real SEALs.

Remember life before May 1, when war movies were considered as doomed as the mission to find and kill Osama bin Laden? A string of films centering on the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan -- from Rendition to Green Zone to the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker -- had failed to lure audiences. But now, in the wake of bin Laden's death at the hands of Navy SEALs, the genre couldn't be hotter. And on June 5, Ryan Kavanaugh's Relativity Media announced one of the more unusual projects:  Mike "Mouse" McCoy and Scott Waugh's Act of Valor, which stars actual SEALs and began life as a recruitment video for the U.S. military's Naval Special Warfare Command.

The Hollywood pickup for a reported $13 million has turned  the duo behind the action-film and commercial production company Bandito Brothers into the most unlikely feature directors in recent history. It will be the first SEALs film to hit theaters, probably in early 2012.

Granted, Valor won't be about the hunt for bin Laden, which Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow intends to portray in her planned SEALs movie for Sony. But the Bandito Brothers project, which cost a reported $15 million to $18 million to produce, provides an unprecedented glimpse into an elite special force.

The project began in 2007 as a simple promo-movie assignment, but the Banditos and the Navy liked the footage so much that they talked about making a full-length documentary. Upping the ante, they then decided to expand it to a feature, hiring screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300) to create a fictional story about a SEAL squad that embarks on a covert mission to recover a kidnapped CIA agent. In the process, they learn that a drug-cartel leader is teaming with a jihadist to bring weapons into the U.S. The bad guys are played by actors, including Emilio Rivera, and Roselyn Sanchez co-stars, but the SEALs -- for the first time -- play themselves in starring roles.

Legendary Pictures CEO Thomas Tull, an investor in Bandito Brothers, executive produced the movie, which took nearly three years to shoot because McCoy and Waugh could only film during scheduled training exercises. At one point, they had to wait eight months to capture a scene in which a boat is lifted out of the water by a helicopter.

The Navy retained the right to review footage for security reasons because SEALs are highly cautious about revealing their tactics, and the names of SEALs appearing in the movie are omitted in the credits. But the filmmakers put cameras on anything and everything -- guns, helmets, vehicles -- to get unusual action shots.

As with every indie film, scoring distribution for Valor was a long shot. The filmmakers met with Imax in 2010, but no deal materialized. Then bin Laden was killed, and Hollywood came calling.

"Rarely do you find a movie that's different from every other movie out there," says Relativity president of production Tucker Tooley. "It's very much a military story and a patriotic story, but it isn't a one-quadrant movie."

A veteran distributor who has seen Valor says the action in the movie is "incredible and authentic" but that it feels like a government pic. He believes the film could play well in conservative-leaning states.

But Tooley and McCoy say it has broader appeal.

"We believe the authenticity of Act of Valor will transcend demographic, race and political lines," McCoy tells THR. "We hope viewers will get a rare glimpse into the SEAL community and that their lives will be as enriched by the experience as ours have been."

The Navy is expected to support the project because it considers Valor a potentially powerful recruitment tool. The Navy won't get proceeds from the movie, but the filmmakers will make a donation to armed-forces charities.

Other planned SEALs projects include Universal's Lone Survivor, based on Marcus Luttrell's memoir about his time in Afghanistan. In addition to Bigelow's film, which also is seeking military cooperation, Sony is pursuing a SEALs project with Tom Hanks about a real-life ship hijacking by Somali pirates.