Directed by: Jose Padilha || Produced by: Jose Padilha, Marcos Prado
Written by: Braulio Mantovani, Jose Padilha, Rodrigo Pimentel || Starring: Wagner Moura, Andre Ramiro, Caio Junqueira, Milhem Cortaz, Maria Ribeiro, Fabio Lago, Fernada Machado
Music by: Pedro Bromfman || Cinematography by: Lula Carvalho || Editing by: Daniel Rezende, Chris Lebenzon || Country: Brazil || Language: Portuguese
Running Time: 120 minutes
If you think you like hardcore, brutal crime-thrillers, and you haven’t seen Jose Padilha’s magnum opus drama about Brazilian military police units in Rio de Janeiro, then you ain’t seen nothing yet. The success of one of Brazil’s greatest films helped popularize the country’s now recognizable “aestheticization of hunger” style, along with the likeminded City of God (2002), descended from the former Portugese colony’s Cinema Novo movement of the ’60’s and ’70’s. Elite Squad’s popular (yet inferior) sequel would go on to be Brazil’s most commercially successful film of all time, outcompeting James Cameron’s blockbuster behemoth Avatar (2009) in its native country. This, however, is where it all started.
Where Elite Squad outcompetes its more critic-friendly counterpart, City of God (2002, also penned by screenwriter Braulio Mantovani), in my opinion, is in its narrative cohesion and focus, as well its personable, charismatic protagonist. Regardless of that, City of God won over most Western critics because it was told from the perspective of the gangsters and the disenfranchised living in the squalor of Brazil’s slums, known as favelas. City of God portrayed gangsters as complex and the police as simple-minded and corrupt, playing the sociological angle that gets the left-minded sympathetic every time.
Elite Squad takes the hard route and tells its story from the perspective of those laying down the law. In broad terms, the film is critical of the snobbish hypocrisy of the upper middle class, the college educated social activists who derail the brutality of police and heckle those who fight the war on drugs. The film feels borderline fascist at times, and has been frequently called so (although I would argue that it in fact is not). While the film does not shy away from the rampant corruption of Brazil’s police forces, it rarely (if ever) sympathizes with the drug lords that rule the impoverished slums, nor the “innocent” bystanders who directly or indirectly support their drug trade. Wagner Moura’s protagonist admits in one of his many voiceovers that most drug lords come from poor or abusive backgrounds, but further reminds the audience that is no excuse for their sociopathic behavior. Moura and his BOPE (Brazil’s version of SWAT) team’s argument is that brutal behavior is justified to combat criminal brutality. They are, after all, fighting a war. Rio’s favela gangsters are treated not as would-be civilians, but enemy combatants.
As far as characterizations are concerned, Moura is the standout as the charismatic, badass BOPE captain who dominates the mean streets of Rio. While the majority of his time is spent breaking criminals with everything from guns to lead pipes to plastic bags to his bare hands, the film also portrays his nervous breakdown as he coordinates his dangerous, stressful job with a wife and a baby on the way. He despises the corruption that exists at every level of the police force, which affects the actions of his BOPE squad and puts him and his men’s lives in danger. His psyche is torn as he comprehends being a father while a mother tearfully asks him if her son (a lookout for a drug gang that BOPE busted and Nascimento personally beat) was killed by thugs for cooperating with the police. Nascimento refrains from admitting that failed lookouts are always killed by their gang bosses. Moura’s character is both the unapologetic celebration of and also brooding condemnation of toxic masculinity.
The film is bolstered by excellent supporting performances by Andre Ramiro as Nascimento’s young, up-and-coming BOPE apprentice, as well as a tenacious bit by Fabio Lago as the viscious gang lord Baiano. The former’s character boasts a great arc as he transforms from a fresh, naive, and idealistic police officer with hopes of one day becoming a lawyer, to a hardened, unapologetic warrior. His development is believable and his interactions with the wealthier students in his law school classes are as eye-opening as the film’s many favela raids. Lago himself doesn’t have much screentime, but he makes the most of his performance as a vicious drug lord who doesn’t bat an eye before shooting NGO workers in the face or burning them alive in a tire-stacked necklace.
Padilha’s direction brings all these narrative structural elements together. His stylized “cosmetics of hunger” aesthetic emphasizes grime, dirt, and blood, as well as flashing lights and bustling urban energy. Every frame pulsates like a MTV-music video, but also retains the grit characteristic of a war-torn slum. Cinematographer Lula Carvalho’s frantic handheld camerawork leaps across ditches, favela rooftops, and through crowded social gatherings with its enemy combatants. The shootouts feature excellent sound editing, mixing deafening gunshots around crystal-clear dialogue and crumbling rubble. The film’s killer soundtrack bolsters the movie’s cinematic impact and pumps the characters and story with endless energy. Moura’s voiceover explains the dynamics of police combat, how corruption within the force dictates gang activity and vice versa, highlights character motivation and development, and adds liberal amounts of dark humor. Top to bottom, this project is one of the best directed crime thrillers I’ve ever seen.
If you’re a fan of crime dramas, Elite Squad is too good and too important of a project to pass up. While the majority of Western critics may dismiss this as an overzealous, fascist war-on-drugs film, Brazilian fans understand the source material and appreciate its translation on-creen. For once, this is one foreign marvel that was too politically incorrect for film analysts to stomach, but if you know good cinema, you’ll down this in one go and come running back for more.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Jose Padilha’s directs this film like it’s nobody’s business, infusing Elite Squad’s well written story with a narrative energy all but the greatest crime dramas fail to achieve. His “cosmetics of hunger” visual aesthetic keeps the criminal-cop action dynamic throughout. Braulio Mantovani outdoes his critically acclaimed City of God by assembling one of the best police procedurals in years. Both the major and minor characters are believable, multi-dimensional, and contribute to the narrative’s progression in appropriate ways, highlighted by Wagner Moura’s excellent protagonist and Andre Ramiro’s fish-out-of-water character. This crime saga plays fast and hard with controversial subject matter and fascinating questions of crime and punishment.
—> Elite Squad receives MY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.
? Neto joined because he liked war. Matias joined because he believed in the police’s cause. And the corrupt cop? Fabio joined because he wanted to get away from his commander who almost had him killed. But what Fabio didn’t know was that his commander was a fucking pussy compared to me…