You know a city is in trouble when it needs its own SAS-style death squad to compensate for most of the standard police force being corrupt. But it’s easier to understand Rio’s situation when you learn that its poorly trained police officers are paid just £200 a month and expected to take on drug gangs with bigger guns and more money than they’ll ever have. Cops sell their own weapons to the drug lords, give tip-offs about upcoming raids, even claim territories in the city’s car-towing scheme to earn extra on the side.
In the violent world of Elite Squad all cops are like this, the city is broken, and an opening scene in which cops appear to be assassinating one of their own in a crowded slum sets the bleak tone. All hell breaks loose and the titular squad – BOPE – is called to intervene, which is where we meet Nascimento. He’s high in the BOPE ranks, but he’s burned out at the tender age of mid-30s, which tells you everything you need to know about a job which is as much about taking down the ‘good guys’ as the criminals. He has a kid on the way, rising blood pressure and a wife he alternately loves and abuses; in short, he’s a bit of a monster, which is why he’s so good at his job.
He’s prone to repeatedly asphyxiating teenage lookouts with a plastic bag – this is not an easy film to watch – and casually gunning down anyone he deems related to the drug trade. He’s retiring soon and his job now is to clean up one particular favela in time for the Pope’s impending 1997 visit (unlikely, but a true BOPE mission), while selecting his successor from the thin list of clean cops who’ve applied. Clean cops like Neto and Matias, young and idealistic, polar opposite in temperaments but both with a determined streak that elevates them above the easy corruption of their peers.
It’s through their eyes that the heavy social commentary comes. Neto is training to be a lawyer but can’t tell his fellow students – the very middle class people he’s paid a pittance to protect – that he’s a cop for fear of being hated. Their use of social drugs has him torn between wanting to fit in and needing to berate them for fuelling the drug gangs that cause so much of Rio’s crime.
It’s a point made several times throughout the film, that the middle classes can’t have it both ways, and it’s one which eventually leads to several dead students and a hardened Neto.
Meanwhile, a more methodical, rational Matias is assigned to fix squad cars, where he finds that good parts are hawked for quick cash and most of his fellow cops are involved in scams in the various community schemes run by an also corrupt government. He gets involved with the bad cop we saw being shot at early on and their bravery/stupidity in the favelas gets the attention of Nascimento: one of the two rookies will be his man.
The best sequence of the whole film is a Full Metal Jacket training sequence that sees the BOPE commanders weed out and humiliate the corrupt trainees, and stretch the best recruits to breaking point – the beginning of their conversion into killing machines. One of our rookies is the cream of the crop, the other makes the grade but it takes a tragic incident to push him over the edge. Soon he’s bagging suspects like his mentor, hardened to the task and increasingly isolated from reality.
It’s a world away from the engrossing City of God, primarily because it’s very difficult to like any of these characters. Nascimento tortures too many children to be a genuine anti-hero, while Neto is too straight-laced to warm to; Matias is the most interesting yet he gets the least screen time. That one of them dies on a compassionate errand is undoubtedly deliberate: those with humanity won’t cut it with BOPE, and the final, brutal moment in which our chosen cop brutally cements his place as a BOPE soldier hammers this home with some success.
Elite Squad is powerful, insightful and absolutely gripping in its strict allegiance to BOPE’s violence-solves-violence code of conduct. But the cold, hard nature of its protagonists ultimately leaves the viewer more stunned than entertained, and keeps the excellent Elite Squad from the five stars it so nearly deserves.
Extras Just a trailer and a director’s interview, although the latter is a great deal more interesting than most. It covers such topics as game theory and its relation to the scripting of the film; the state of Brazil’s government and police force, including the frank admission that while everyone knows underpaying the force is contributing to corruption and gang culture, there’s simply no money to do anything about it; and also a discussion of the existence of BOPE and what it takes to be one of those hundred ‘killing machines’ who clean up both the good and bad sides of Rio’s gang war.
The film was co-scripted by a BOPE soldier who obviously formed the basis of Nascimento’s character, and while many in Brazil have criticised it for being little more than a fascist recruitment tool, the interview does a great job of dispelling that notion.
8 January 2009