If the 2007 Brazilian cops-and-druglords flick Elite Squad got any kind of U.S. release, I completely missed it. But if it didn't, I imagine it's not going to, at least not to judge from the Region 1 DVD that got released in October, something I learned completely by accident a little while ago. Maybe it's not completely within this blog's mission statement to take on a home video release (and a nearly three-month old one, at that!) the weather's bad enough in Chicago that I felt justified in pushing Bride Wars back one more day, because hell, the Berlinale judges can't be wrong, can they?
Actually, they can. I've not seen every one of the films in competition at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival, but Elite Squad is assuredly not the best of the ones that I have: certainly not next to Happy-Go-Lucky, Sparrow and There Will Be Blood (though by the same token, it's at least the equal to I've Loved You So Long and a huge step up from Elegy). Maybe it's just one of those things where the institutional collective mind of the Berlinale was making up for the fact that it had never been given the chance to give an award to City of God, one of the defining films of the '00s. Because God dammit, is Elite Squad ever anxious to remind you of City of God. It comes by this urge honestly: Rio de Janeiro is no less a craphole now than it was in 2002, and the social need for films dealing with Rio's crapholiness has not lessened. Plus, the two films share a screenwriter. But being an honest rip-off does not guarantee being a successful rip-off, and Elite Squad suffers from a lazy style and a screenplay of sometimes uncertain moral position, and neither of these things bodes terribly well. In the end, the film is a satisfactory enough cop movie, but not one that I think people will still be name checking six years hence.
First things first: by "uncertain moral position", I do not mean that the film is bad because it presents a fascist police force as a desirable thing. Dirty Harry presented a fascist police force as a good thing, and it's a fucking awesome movie.* The problem I have with Elite Squad is that it presents a fascist police force - make that, a fascist police supergroup - as being the only thing that can possibly cure the rampaging crime in Rio, and then it never makes up its mind whether those fascist cops are people we ought to be rooting for or not. "Sure," the movie says, "they get results, but aren't they kind of shitty, mean people anyway?" I don't like being spoon-fed more than anybody, but there's a difference between ambiguity and not making up your mind, and if Elite Squad is supposed to be a moral puzzle, it is a failure. Nothing about the movie itself, other than how uncomfortable it makes us to watch it, suggest that this is a morality play. And for all I know, in Brazil this doesn't play as uncomfortable - maybe every man, woman and child who saw it in its native country was unabashedly cheering for the police as folk heroes. But outside of Brazil, it asks questions that it absolutely refuses to follow up on. Now, being a formalist, that doesn't bother me all that much, but it's a problem given what the film wants to be: unmistakably, this is a Social Message picture.
The Social Message in question is about Brazil's largest city, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. In 1997, the BOPE (the Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais, a super-tough subset of the military police) is tearing through the seedy underbelly of Rio, looking to knock some pegs out from under the city's toughest drug empires in the most downtrodden favelas (something not quite as rough as a shantytown, but not nearly as nice as a slum) before the arrival of Pope John Paul II to the city. While this is happening, a particular BOPE captain named Nascimento (Wagner Moura) is looking to replace himself from one of the new trainees just plucked from the police force for some excruciating training to see if they have what it takes to be BOPE: Neto (Caio Junqueria) and Matias (André Ramiro). Nascimento has a particularly urgent desire to retire into a nice, safe, civilian's life as quickly as possible: he's well on his way to fatherhood, and he's not terribly keen to have his wife and child living in the constant fear that he'll end up dead. As for Neto and Matias, they both have their own hopes and dreams that will either be empowered or crushed by what happens to them as a result of their association with BOPE; it's all somewhat complex (not insurmountably so), and deeply linked to how everything inevitably goes pear-shaped.
If you didn't see the message there, I don't know that I blame you: it's not part of the plot, so much as it's raised up out of the mise en scène. Like City of God before it, Elite Squad is a documentary look at the favelas and what life is like there as much as anything else, something of a cry for help to the world outside to see this merciless squalor and do something about it (for my tastes, neither film meets this goal nearly as well as the City of God spin-off TV series, City of Men; but in this, TV has a native advantage over cinema). On that count, I suppose it works just fine, although its plot hinders it somewhat in that regard: City of God is kind of "ground up" from the inhabitants of those wretched quarters, while Elite Squad is first a police procedural, with its social commentary squeaked in on the sidelines.
Ultimately, this works against Elite Squad's effectiveness as more than a simple, none too memorable entertainment (albeit a particularly bloody, off-putting entertainment it is). It's not a completely perfect procedural, either: a needlessly confusing flashback structure makes it hard to figure out exactly who knows who for the first hour of the film, until it catches up with itself at the midway point. And director José Padilha, responsible for the well-regarded documentary Bus 174, which I have not seen, doesn't help the story along all that well; he tends to shoot everything in that gritty, grainy, neon-lit, hand-held post-Bourne style - you know, that one - and this gives most of the scenes a uniform look that makes it somewhat difficult just to figure out where in space we are at any one moment. Style is clearly more important to the director than the narrative; not something I feel terribly bothered by, except that the story is so very aware of its desire to educate.
But all things considered, there's nothing really wrong with the film except its inability to separate itself from the pack. Ultimately, it's a high-energy crimefighting caper with lots of explosions and violence, and if this is the mindset one enters before watching the movie, one will probably find it passably diverting. No, it's not as smart as it wants to be, but there's nothing bad about that; only that there's a lingering aftertaste of all the seriousness that the film wanted to impress upon us, that comes across as one too many overly violent scenes, one too many talky cop passages. It's entertaining, but not too entertaining, because somehow, it seems like it's not meant to be entertaining at all.
*Which hasn't stopped Clint Eastwood from spending the rest of his career apologising for it, beginning with its first sequel, Magnum Force, all the way up to his brand-new Gran Torino.