I know what you’re thinking; this title sounds like a direct to DVD release, at least this was the thought that paraded through my mind as I was scrolling through theatre listings, trying to figure out what to go and see on a Wednesday afternoon. Luckily I dug a little deeper for more information than just the title, because Elite Squad just happens to be the all-time box office sales leader in Brazil, and the country’s official entry in the the foreign film category for the academy awards. Elite Squad 2? Really? After viewing the film, I have vowed to never hold a silly title against a film ever again. Elite Squad is not your typical action movie; rather, it is a politically relevant police thriller, with action thrown in at all the right moments.
The story follows Colonel Nascimento (Wagner Moura), a man dedicated to his job with BOPE, a military-level special police force in Rio de Janeiro. On the surface, things seem to be going well for Nascimento, he’s been climbing the ranks since the original Elite Squad (unfortunately I haven’t seen this one yet), but family life is not so good, as his ex-wife Rosane (Maria Ribeiro) and teenage son now live with Diogo Fraga (Irandhir Santos), a political activist who has been highly critical in public of BOPE and Nascimento. Things take a turn for the worse when a corrupt security guard smuggles firearms into a high security prison for the members of one of four rival drug cartels currently incarcerated. The gangs had previously been separated, but with the newly acquired firearms and guard keys, Beirada (Seu Jorge) and his thugs proceed to massacre their rivals. The security guards, police officers, and political higher ups are more than happy to let these criminals kill each other; however, Nascimento cannot allow the violence to continue. Inevitably, the bloodshed is blamed on BOPE’s response to the situation, and Nascimento finds himself plucked out of his field work position, and placed behind a desk — the head of BOPE operations. Nascimento soon finds that this is not an enviable position to be in; corruption on the police force has spread quickly and deeply, all the way to the Governor of Rio de Janeiro himself.
Elite Squad is a refreshing film. It’s not overly focused on a high body count, or explosions, or any other staple of traditional action movies. In fact, I have a bit of a hard time referring to it as an action movie at all. The story is very relevant in a political sense, as it is a commentary on the level of corruption in the police force and the government that the people of Rio De Janerio are currently dealing with. I am in no position personally to comment on these issues, but the filmmakers are quite clear at the outset of Elite Squad that Rio has a problem. I’m paraphrasing, but this is the line that appeared at the beginning of the film as I remember it:
‘Unfortunately there are many similarities between the story of this film and the state of affairs in Rio de Janeiro; however, this is still a work of fiction’.
I love that a Elite Squad has something political to say. Not only was it an entertaining film, but it raised my awareness about another part of the world. I found this very surprising from a film that looked like typical action fare.
My only criticism of Elite Squad is the heavy handed use of narration as a device to move the plot along. Narration has its place, but it seemed like Nascimento would address the audience every ten minutes. This was unfortunate because it is nearly impossible for an audience to get attached to characters when they are simply told of events, and feelings, and intentions, rather than witnessing and inferring them first hand. Don’t tell us that a character is going seek out revenge, show us. Show us the focus in his eyes, the tension in his neck, his sure stride, his strangely curt interaction with friends. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that this use of narration held Elite Squad back from being a truly great film.
How will Elite Squad fair at the academy awards? I’m not sure, but there is no doubt that this is a very good film that may surprise you in how fresh it feels. For those of you living in Toronto, try to make it out to the Cumberland 4 theatre where Elite Squad is currently playing. If you like your action with a dash of political conspiracy then I am sure you will have a great time.