Brazil’s powerful military police are elevated to Rambo-style heroes in “The Elite Squad,” a one-note celebration of violence-for-good that plays like a recruitment film for fascist thugs. Weinstein coin was injected on the basis of the script only, but after editing was over, tyro features helmer Jose Padilha decided a rewrite was in order, tacking on an omnipresent narration that’s meant to strengthen identification but instead will alienate intelligent viewers. Though pic was Brazil’s top grosser of 2007, arthouse auds elsewhere won’t coddle to the inescapable right-wing p.o.v.
Boffo biz at home was accompanied by major debates over the glorification of brutish police methods, especially since Brazilian cops already have a reputation for Dirty Harry-style vigilantism. On the one hand, “Elite Squad” is an honest picture of violence in the favelas, or slums, of Rio de Janeiro, and the rampant official corruption that sustains it. But pic presents its case by celebrating police psychopaths and ridiculing any attempts at social activism, or even emotion. Charges of fascism by pic’s critics aren’t merely knee-jerk liberal reactions, but an unimpeachable statement of fact.
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BOPE is the elite squad in question, a small tactical force sent into the favelas to kill without thinking (not coincidentally, black uniforms and the group’s skull symbol recall the SS Death’s Head Brigade). Capt. Nascimento (Wagner Moura) is getting ready to pass the baton of command to someone else. With wife Rosane (Maria Ribeiro) pregnant, he’s feeling a tinge of paternal warmth that could jeopardize the hard-ass heartlessness his job requires.
Parallel to Nascimento’s story is that of a couple honest police rookies, intellectual Andre Matias (Andre Ramiro) and impulsive Neto (Caio Junqueira). Nascimento’s narration continuously comments on their progress as the two chafe under the police force’s systemic corruption. When their commander sends them into a slum rave, fully expecting their deaths, BOPE comes to the rescue, ending the battle just in time for Nascimento to get a call from his wife telling him her water broke — how’s that for timing?
Neto and Matias are so impressed with BOPE’s righteous dedication they decide to switch forces; after passing them through predictably sadistic basic training, Nascimento considers one of them as his replacement. Meanwhile, Matias tries to reconcile his studies, and relationship with namby-pamby NGO do-gooder Maria (Fernanda Machado), with the “no emotion” requirements of the elite squad. Neto seems poised for the captaincy, but then a battle with drug dealer Baiano (Fabio Lago) changes the hierarchy.
“Either a cop stays dirty or he chooses war,” intones Nascimento’s incessant voiceover as he explains the way the system works: Regular policemen are simply on the take, social workers are hopelessly ineffectual and naive, and pot-smoking rich kids are as bad as the dealers. Whereas the cops enter the favelas to get their payoff money, BOPE raids the slums to kill, no questions asked. After all, that’s what these scum deserve, isn’t it?
Script was co-written by Rodrigo Pimentel, himself a former BOPE officer, though Padilha encouraged improvisation throughout the shoot. Braulio Mantovani (“City of God”) was signed as script doctor, but together with the helmer, they changed the entire structure in the editing process, adding the problematic voiceover, presumably in a bid to bring one character’s mindset to the fore.
Perfs are suitably intense but, like the pic itself, lack any kind of nuance. Lula Carvalho’s camera never stops moving, bouncing and swerving with such unmodulated motion that auds will need to find their sea legs. More tempered lensing would have created a smoother build-up, though “Elite Squad” isn’t exactly out for the subtlety prize. Darkly saturated colors are in keeping with the general air of danger and militaristic cool.