Reel Action: Jose Padilha's Elite Squad (2007)

Rating: 3 out of 4

Tagline: On the streets of Rio, only the elite survive

Directed by:Jose Padilha
Starring: Wagner Moura, Milhem Cortaz, André Ramiro, Caio Junqueira, and Fernanda Machado

THE PLAN: A Brazilian special forces team is tasked with cleaning up a drug-ridden Rio de Janeiro slum in advance of the pope's 1997 visit – although the leader of the crew may have to find a replacement for his fried nerves before the job is done.

THE KILL: I won't lie, the main reason I chose ELITE SQUAD for this latest edition of Reel Action is because its director, Jose Padilha, has been tasked with bringing the remake of ROBOCOP to the big screen. I had heard some positive things about his 2007 film, yes, but I still might have skipped over it had it not been for his present production. Just what did MGM see in the man, whose work is all but unknown here in the U.S., to give him such a juicy gig?

It doesn't take long for that to become apparent. ELITE SQUAD is a furious, highly-volatile piece of work, filled with violence, bleak humor and a don't-really-give-a-fuck attitude. It's flawed, and not always coherent, but it's the white-knuckled and palpable energy that makes it a memorable viewing experience. You may not walk away from it with a solid piece of mind, and lord knows you'll probably be a bit angry and disoriented, but you can never say it's not the real deal when it comes to packing a punch, ELITE SQUAD doesn't falter.

The film is mostly told through the point of view of Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura), a hardened top dog in Brazil's meanest special forces squad: BOPE. Nascimento, badass and committed as he is, is seeking a way out of the unit. He's expecting a baby, but perhaps more importantly, he's feeling rather on edge lately. To say that he's got anger management issues is to understate the matter, so Nascimento is on the hunt for a replacement... But the question is, who can take such a pressing, punishing job, especially when the war on drugs – and its dealers – is looking eternal.

It's just not a dance party without a machine gun!

Nascimento's crew is one tough unit; their training program makes the boot camp in FULL METAL JACKET look like a slumber party. They use torture tactics to pull information from dealers and lookouts (the old plastic bag over the head trick is often employed, but sometimes it's just easier to shoot a suspect in the leg and kick him while he's down). They have no problem breaking into innocent peoples houses to find out what they know.. You get the point. This is one of those movies where you're almost unsure how much you should be rooting for your heroes.

ELITE SQUAD has the mindset and gritty feel of the badass detective thrillers from the 70s, where rogue officers would do whatever necessary to take down the drug tyrants and the scumbag cops. With the shaky, vivid shooting style of CITY OF GOD and the tough-guy posture of a Scorsese film, Padilha's film is certainly a mean mother, displaying a sort of pitiless cynicism toward its violence and increasingly cold characters. As the war rages on and BOPE becomes determined to take out Baiano, one of the biggest scumbags in the city, the action becomes unpleasant, touting brute force and a shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality. It may be necessary, as these guys really are in a war zone much of the time, but it doesn't make it any easier to swallow. This isn't a Dirty Harry shoot 'em up, where it's all obviously make-believe, it's serious, nasty business.

"I'll be honest, I don't know what that's the signal for... Handjob..?"

There's no doubt that Padilha has a talent for staging chaotic action; each violent confrontation is louder than the last, and the hopelessness of being in the middle of a bullet-storm is quite distinctly felt. The director's vibrant vision is on display throughout the film; this world, where machine guns are omnipresent and ready to go off at any given moment, pulses with realism. If nothing else, it convinces you to cross Rio off of your Bucket List.

The script is another matter; it feels too jumbled, and we're often led through much of the action via Nascimento's narration, which eventually seems nonstop. I personally don't need a narrator to state the obvious every step of the way, and it's a rather offputting distraction. The other characters we meet, like Nascimento's proteges – the intellectual Matias and the strong-willed Neto – don't resonate as much as they should. Their plot strands are obligatory; what Padilha likes is the brutality and viciousness of the battle.

When it's all said and done, I'm not sure that ELITE SQUAD fully connected with me. I was certainly engaged frequently, and it's obvious that Padilha and his co-writers have a lot on their mind and a message in the hearts, but there's a sort of coldness to the film; it's missing a heart. I can live with the chaos and the death and dismay, but I also need to get involved on a more emotional level...

Domestic ELITE SQUAD trailer

TOP ACTION: A long shoot-out between cops and drug dealers that starts at the front of the movie, takes a break, then resumes about halfway through, is a frightening and gripping ordeal.

TOP DEATH: A helpless flunky gets burned alive while held captive in a stack of car tires. Looks like it hurts. A lot.

TOP DIALOGUE: This quote uttered early on pretty much says it all: “In Rio, peace depends on a delicate balance between the thugs' ammo and the cops' corruption.”

FEMALE EXPLOITATION: Matias' love interest, Maria, is quite a lovely vision among the bleak faces and dirty environment. (Though we don't get to see her Brazilian bonbons.)

HOMOEROTIC MOMENT: Nothing to speak of; these dudes are too stressed out and filled with anger to express much man-love.

DRINKING GAME: Drink every time Nascimento explains something via voice-over that isn't necessary. You'll be firing a machine gun into your own slum before the sun rises.

TRIVIA: Padilha followed this with ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN, which is reportedly a much better film; it's also the biggest Brazilian box office hit of all time. I shall indeed be checking it out soon.


Tags: reel action



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