(IFC) Wagner Moura, Caio Junqueira, Andre Ramiro, Milhem Cortaz, Fernando Machado, Maria Ribeiro, Paulo Vilela, Fernanda de Freitas, Fabio Lago. Directed by Jose Padilha
As mean streets go, there are few meaner than the streets of Rio de Janeiro. That might come as a surprise to those whose image of the city are beautiful beaches, half-naked women in the skimpiest bikinis imaginable, endless carnivals and Sugarloaf Mountain, but the slums of Rio are some of the most vicious in the world. Those who have seen Fernando Meirelles’ masterwork City of God already have an idea of that.
In order to combat the crime and drug trafficking, the Brazilian government created a Special Forces unit called BOPE that literally has carte blanche to do whatever is necessary to keep the problem in check. They are the team that goes where even the Brazilian military thinks twice about treading. The druglords in the slums are often better armed, certainly than the police.
That kind of power can lead to corruption, however and often the actions of the BOPE are indistinguishable from those of the gangs that they are sworn to combat. Revenge often takes the place of justice with summary executions commonplace and woe betide any community in which a BOPE member is killed, for the innocent get swept up with the guilty.
Captain Nascimento (Moura) has been one of the field leaders of the BOPE for more than a decade and he is burned out and worn out. He yearns to leave the force and take a job that allows him to spend more time with his wife and baby, but the BOPE is so undermanned that they can’t afford to lose a seasoned leader such as him.
Therefore he must find his own replacement and the first place he looks is in a couple of raw recruits, Neto (Junqueira) and Matias (Ramiro). Matias is studying in the university where he often comes into conflict with the more liberal-minded students who come from privileged backgrounds and have no idea what really goes on in the slums, where he comes from. Neto is his childhood friend, quick on the trigger finger and possessed of a moral certainty of the rightness of what he does. Matias is a bit more idealistic, but the more he sees in the field the more his ideals get compromised.
The two wind up caught in enemy territory, leading to a major BOPE incursion into the slums for a rescue operation. The murder of two of Matias’ student friends further intensifies a tense situation which has been rendered even tenser by an upcoming visit to Rio by the Pope. With corruption rampant and the threat of violence at an all time high, will the stress change the young rookies?
The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Rodrigo Pimentel, who himself served in the Elite Squad for 18 years and one can assume that the action here is based on his experiences. The viewpoint can be characterized as right wing, although those who say “fascist” might be a little bit harsh (and some critics have made those accusations).
Director Padilha previously made the documentary Bus 174 which depicted a real life bus hijacking; it is one of the most amazing documentaries of its kind. He clearly has the skills necessary to make a tense action thriller, and there are moments when he does just that. Unfortunately, for some odd reason he decided to insert an extensive narration by Moura as Nascimento that as the movie goes on becomes maddening and intrusive. While I don’t mind voiceover narration in and of itself, it is a tool that needs to be wielded as a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.
The action sequences are well-done and occasionally brutal, but necessarily so. The violence in the favelas (the slums of Rio) requires it. Some may find it excessive, but the subject matter should be warning enough that those who are of a sensitive nature should probably be wary of seeing it.
The acting is actually pretty fair here; nobody obviously overacts although Lago as a crazed druglord comes pretty close. I won’t make any bones about the violence, or the apparent worldview of the filmmakers which seems to be the end justifies the means and that those who live in slums deserve what they get. I also will give a cautionary note about the narration, which is definitely an issue. Other than that, this is a well-directed tense action film that has quite a bit going for it despite its flaws.
WHY RENT THIS: Gritty and street-wise, the movie is unstinting in the action sequences.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The voiceover narration is pervasive to the point of being annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: The language is pretty raw and the violence pretty pervasive. There’s also a great deal of drug use, so this is definitely for the big kids only.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A pirated copy was released before the actual film made it in to theaters. It was the most-watched Brazilian film in Brazil that year with 2.4 million viewers, but there were also an estimated 11 million viewers of the pirated copy. Director Padilha recently completed a sequel.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: Life As We Know It