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  Elite Squad

Starring: Wagner Moura, André Ramiro, Caio Junqueira, Milhelm Cortaz

Directed by: José Padilha

Produced by: José Padilha, Marcos Pravo, Braulio Mantovani

Written by: José Padilha, Braulio Montovani, Rodrigo Pimentel

Distributor: IFC Films


As seen at the 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival:

     In 2004, José Padilha made a great first film with the documentary Bus 174, which examined the televised hijacking of a Rio De Janero bus by Sandro do Nascimento in 2000. I’m still haunted to this day by some of the images I saw in that picture, particularly the ones involving the terrifyingly decrepit conditions inside of Brazilian prisons. Bus 174 signaled that Padilha had a great career ahead of him, both as a storyteller and a muckraker who could bring the corruption found within the Brazilian socio-economic system to the mainstream’s attention.

     Elite Squad, Padilha’s first theatrical narrative feature, dives headfirst into some of the same issues as Bus 174, but with little of the thoughtful introspection of its predecessor. Understanding the complexities of the Brazilian socio-political sphere takes a hopeless backseat here to crafting an “intense” sensory experience full of loud violence and showy visuals, much like Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s criminally-overrated 2002 effort, City of God.

     Elite Squad is narrated by Captain Nascimento (Wagner Maura), a devoted member of the BOPE (Special Police Operation Battalion), which the movie makes out to be Brazil’s only honest police-organization. The BOPE’s main responsibility is to take down powerful drug-lords in the country’s slums. In this regard, a huge task lays before Nascimento: he has been assigned to take control of a particularly dangerous area near the location in which the Pope will say during his 1997 visit to Brazil. With this responsibility arises another problem: Nascimento and his wife are having a baby, and she doesn’t like his endless work schedule or the high amount danger he puts himself in on a daily basis. He will have to find a replacement for himself by the time the Pope arrives in order to satisfy her.

     The viewer is informed early on that Nascimento’s choice boils down to two candidates: longtime friends Neto (Caio Junqueira)—“the one with heart”—and Matias (André Ramiro)—“the one with brains.” As signaled by the movie’s brooding and doomy tone, however, it becomes clear that the exercise may result in disaster for Nascimiento and/or the two young men.

     At its worst, Elite Squad is a loud and thoroughly unnecessary showcase of the violence in Brazil’s slums. I don’t mean to trivialize an important issue by deeming its representation on celluloid to be unimportant, but we’ve seen depictions similar to the one that Padilha presents time and time again in other films: drug-lords and their followers senselessly fire bullets at the police, the police fire back, and often other police and other drug-lords fire at both groups. The film’s opening scene, which showcases its non-linear framing device by showing Neto and Matias in a sticky-situation set to the intertwined sounds of gunshots and rave music, is particularly derivative. Because of the very familiar nature of the material, its existence is self-defeating: rather than shocking the viewer as they should, all of the horrendous atrocities in Elite Squad just seem passé.

     Despite its overall hollowness, Elite Squad does occasionally settle down to dissect its themes in some level of depth. Most of these instances involve Matias who, in addition to training to become a part of the BOPE, has aspirations in the field of law. He’s the odd-man-out in his law-school, which is full of progressive-thinking students who dismiss all police as corrupt killers and harassers. The best scene in the movie, which is far more intense in its claustrophobic intimacy than any of the much more violent ones on display, occurs when Matias involves himself in a debate with his class over the nature of the Brazilian police-force.  The scene is written and directed with a pitch-perfect degree of force, and actor Ramiro delivers it with a stunning command over Matias’ inner-conflict.

     Padilha also manages to provoke quite a bit of moral-intrigue in Matias’ befriending of a group of students who participate in a drug-cartel of their own. Unfortunately, like much of the rest of the movie, this story-thread falls victim to ineffective external-plotting in the end. (Padilha routinely makes the mistake of assuming that the movie’s action is more complex than it is, while at the same time never realizing just how nuanced his character-development could be.)

     Ultimately, Elite Squad comes across simply as the latest entry into the recent wave of ultra-violent Brazilian pictures.  Padilha undoubtedly still has a lot to say about the issues facing his country—Bus 174 was only the tip of the iceberg that will become his oeuvre—but he’ll need to readjust his focus and refine his vision if he wants to further chisel away at these from a narrative-perspective. As it is, Elite Squad is a failed attempt at message-making.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 6.29.2008

Screened on: 6.21.2008 at the AMC Avco Center in Westwood, CA.


Elite Squad is rated R and runs 115 minutes.

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