If your knowledge of Rio De Janerio extends beyond Louis Letterier’s use in The Incredible Hulk then you will know that the sprawling slums, or favelas, are dangerous places run by highly armed and ruthless drug gangs. The local police are so poorly paid and inadequately trained that they are easy prey to corruption with most turning a blind eye to crime in the favelas in return for big payoffs from the drug lords.
When something does go wrong or the government requires real action, instead of the regular police they call in BOPE. BOPE is like a highly militant Latin American answer to The Untouchables. Trained in urban warfare rather than basic law, staunchly incorruptible and operating with near impunity, BOPE walks a fine line between brutal thugs and the only real weapon against Brazil’s rampant drug culture.
Elite Squad follows hard-ass Captain Nascimento as he prepares to choose his replacement amidst the local government’s determination to use BOPE to crackdown on the favelas before the Pope comes to town to visit. Nascimento is now an expectant father and after being forced to confront the fallout caused by one of his squad’s actions he starts to find himself unable to cope with the life-threatening nature of the job. Rookie cops Neto and Mathais are naïve new recruits to the regular police determined to stand against the corruption but trapped by it’s infection all the way to the top. One of the two will ultimately replace Nascimento and the movie follows their turbulent time in the regular force and then through to joining BOPE and it’s merciless training regime to decide who can make the grade.
Elite Squad is played straight down the line by Bus 174 director Jose Padilha. It is as tough and as no-nonsense as the squad it presents. Tense gun-battles rage in the claustrophobic rats maze slums. Tensions mount as Mathais tries to hide his day-job from his dope-smoking college friends. Nascimento struggles with his devotion to his job and his new demands at home as a father-to-be. Interrogations by BOPE are swift, brutal and bloody. Gang reprisals are just as swift and twice as unpleasant. BOPE training makes Full Metal Jacket’s bootcamp look like Disneyworld. There is no room for buddy comedy here in the gritty tale of urban Brazil life but occasional moments of dark humor creep in now and again. When Mathais falls asleep during a BOPE night class, Nascimento hands him a live grenade rather than a cup of coffee, instructing him that falling asleep again would not be in anyone’s interest.
Some are calling Elite Squad a recruiting film for a fascist hitsquad. I think that is too reductive, even for a pretty liberal guy like myself. Padilha exposes the hypocrisy and apathy that is rife in Brazil, with yuppie kids smoking weed and snorting coke all supplied by the favela drug dealers then complaining about the social injustices they themselves are helping to fund. It also points a finger at the Brazilian government, implying that had they properly funded and trained the police 20 years ago, the problem wouldn’t be so desperate now that the likes of BOPE and their hard-line tactics would have to exist at all. That he does so without sacrificing the enjoyable gritty action is a credit to him as a director.
Part social-commentary on Brazil’s screwed up socio-political situation and part balls-out action flick, Elite Squad is the flip side to the coin portrayed in Fernando Meirelles’ City of God.