Rob Brunner
February 17, 2012 AT 05:00 AM EST

Mike ”Mouse” McCoy had fractured just about every breakable part of his body over the course of an 18-year career as a motorcycle racer and Hollywood stuntman. But when he flipped an ATV off a cliff during a stunt gone wrong in 2005, it was time to rethink things. ”I just destroyed myself,” says McCoy, 42. ”Double compound in my tibia, fibula. I was in bed for six months. That’s when I said, ‘All right, man, you always wanted to pursue being a filmmaker full-time. Now’s the time.”’

Seven years later McCoy and another stuntman-turned-moviemaker, Scott Waugh, are about to release their first feature film, Act of Valor, a project as unusual as its codirectors. (The R-rated film hits theaters Feb. 24.) The movie offers a realistic look at the work of Navy SEALs — so realistic that it stars eight genuine SEALs (along with a few professional actors). Shot around the globe, the fictional film — which follows SEALs as they try to foil an international terrorist plot — is made up of action sequences that are based on real missions. The tactics and weaponry are also genuine. Even the bullets were real: Much of the fighting used live ammunition.

Since Act of Valor was completed in 2011, interest in the SEALs has exploded, primarily due, of course, to their role in the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden. Now the movie is getting a big push from Relativity Media, which acquired it for a reported $13 million last year and invested in an approximately $30 million marketing campaign that included a Super Bowl ad. ”It’s challenging when you don’t have big stars in a movie to tell people what this is,” says Relativity co-president Tucker Tooley. ”[But] we think it has a real shot to connect. It’s unique: This is a movie that you’ve never seen before.”

Though the directors mapped out their story ahead of time, they left the combat parts up to the experts. ”When it came time to actually architect the battle scenes, the SEALs did all the operational planning,” says McCoy. ”They would say, ‘Hey, bro, we would do it like this, we would say it like this.’ We would disregard [the script] and do things how they were really done.” Originally the directors had planned to use actors in all the roles, but ultimately they decided to focus on authenticity over experience. (For security reasons, the SEALs cannot be identified by name.) ”The SEALs train and train so hard for so long,” says Waugh, 41. ”How could an actor replicate that nuance?” It was a risky creative decision, since the SEALs do have some dramatic scenes that require actual acting. ”I don’t think that’s as dangerous as an actor with a gun,” says Waugh with a laugh.

The film took two and a half years to make, in part because it proved difficult to get all the SEALs together at the same time. As active-duty personnel, they would often be shipped off on missions during filming. ”Imagine having your lead go off and risk his life,” says McCoy. ”As his friend, you just hope he comes back.”

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