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Elite Squad

tn_elitesquadELITE SQUAD is a 2007 Brazilian movie about BOPE (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais), the titular squad of Brazilian military police. They’re basically a special forces unit, but unlike in the U.S. their job is to go after their own citizens. If you saw CITY OF GOD you know how the drug gangs control the favelas of Rio, so you can imagine what the supercops would have to be like in that world. They wear berets and they got a logo straight out of STARSHIP TROOPERS.

mp_elitesquadThis is not an action movie, it’s not even exactly a police procedural, it’s more like a war movie. One of my buddies told me he thought it was fascist and glorified abusive cops, but I completely disagree. I think it’s more like a movie like THE HURT LOCKER that just shows some humans stuck in the middle of an insane, endless conflict with no possibility of a solution or a victory. They kinda know it’s pointless but they’re in it, what are they gonna do? They just go with it.

It even has a section of the movie that’s a little like the boot camp scenes in FULL METAL JACKET (or at least the WWE reality competition show Tough Enough), as a huge group of rookies is hammered and tormented and abused until only a few remain to join the squad.

I assume we’ve all seen CITY OF GOD by now. (It took me for fuckin ever, so you guys had a good window of opportunity there.) ELITE SQUAD is by the same writer, different director. It feels very similar: beautifully shot on location, visually overwhelming because of all the texture of the favelas, fast paced and stylish, chaotic and handheld but pretty easy to follow, jammed full of characters with complex relationships but not confusing about it (and it doesn’t even have to write their names on the screen in this one). But it’s totally different just because it’s from the perspective of the police. It’s actually based on a book written by a sociologist and two BOPE officers, so it’s somewhat inspired by real events.

The movie is constantly narrated by the leader of the squad, Nascimento (Wagner Moura) who looks like Michael Ironside with a dash of Michael Shannon. The guy never shuts up with the narration – if there’s an English dubbed version he must be played by Morgan Freeman – but somehow it doesn’t kill the movie.

I don’t really see how you could say it’s glorifying cops going over the line. Maybe humanizing it. But it’s a story about officers trying to be honorable in a sea of corruption, and not necessarily succeeding. The way Nascimento tells it he’s one of the few clean cops, but then you see him in action. He’s getting information out of some rich white kids (called “playboys” in Brazil I’ve noticed) who are dealing pot. At first it seems like it’ll be funny to see these kids get the shit scared out of them, but then he’s putting plastic bags over their heads, calling them faggots and making them think he’s gonna kill them. I guess that kind of thing would be played for laughs if it was TRUE LIES, but here it’s like a punch to the nuts.

In fact he forces one of these guys to talk and then lets him go, which gets the guy killed by the more serious higher ups in the gang. And it’s not like that’s a surprise when that happens. For the rest of the movie Nascimento’s losing it from the guilt. He knows it was an indirect murder. In his quest for redemption he leads a team on a mission to find the corpse so at least the kid’s mother can bury him. He’s so single-minded about it that he’s out there looking for the body on the night his wife is giving birth. Not very glamourous. And there’s no LETHAL WEAPON guitar and sax to help him out.

He’s flipping out enough that he decides he has to quit, and therefore he’s on a quest to find his replacement. He thinks it should be one of two rookies, but he’s not sure which one, so the movie becomes their story too. They get stuck working in the auto shop, and they get constantly fucked over by other cops stealing parts from the cars and shit like that. They get so fed up that they plan a heist to steal another cop’s bribe money and use it to buy the parts they need. Maybe we need something like that to make up for all the budget crises we have in all our city, county, state and national government right now.

Meanwhile one of these guys is in school studying to become a lawyer. There’s a scene where the class discussion turns to police brutality, and he sits there and fumes while all these privileged white kids complain about the cops. And eventually he tries to speak up. I know it’s a smart movie because somehow it made me identify with the kid who wants to be a cop.

The story takes place during a time when the battle between drug gangs and the elite squad is extra-vicious because they’ve been asked to clean up the streets before an impending visit from the Pope. Nascimento knows it’s a recipe for disaster, so he protests, he’s shut down, then he does his job like a professional. At one point when someone gets killed he says, “Put him on the Pope’s tab.” It’s one part badass, two parts depressing.

The structure of the story really works. It starts in the middle of a shitstorm with a police shooting at a huge outdoor dance party. Then it starts telling you Nascimento’s story, his explanation of daily BOPE life as his is beginning to fall apart. And it introduces his two potential replacements, contrasting the kind of out of control dumb guy to the more timid intelligent guy. Eventually it catches up to the opening scene so we figure out what was happening there, then to the boot camp where it becomes a competition between those two characters to take over. Within that pretty simple structure though there are many characters, factions, plots, philosophical disagreements and outbursts of violence, so it feels pretty epic. Actually, it’s about cops but now that I think about it it kind of reminds me of GOODFELLAS.

The director is Jose Padilha, who had previously only done a documentary called BUS 174 that I’m gonna have to see. His followup to this was ELITE SQUAD 2 in October of 2010, which was so popular it actually beat AVATAR in Brazil. I’m keeping an eye out for a DVD with English subtitles ’cause I’m dying to see that one.

Right now, I kind of doubt this will really happen, but Padilha’s replaced Darren Aranofsky as the current “guy who’s gonna remake ROBOCOP.” It’s an interesting choice and it’s hard to predict where he would go with it. On one hand his work so far is so based in the gritty realities of Brazilian life that it’s hard to imagine his version having the comic book feel or blunt-force satire of Verhoeven’s original. And maybe it needs to be different to not be total blasphemy, but maybe that would be going too far away from what makes it great? On the other hand this is a guy who’s obviously immersed in and knowledgeable about the out-of-control militarization of the police. So they’re choosing a director on substance, that’s unusual these days.

Like I said, this is not exactly an action movie. When shit pops off it’s all the handheld COPS type of pseudo-documentary feel. It works well for this story though because it’s like you’re embedded with the troops, you’re just trying not to catch a bullet. If the shootouts were HARD BOILED awesome that might be inappropriate for this subject. But if this guy does do ROBOCOP and maintains that style that could be an issue, might take the joy out of the robot.

Anyway thanks to Diego M., Ricardo S. and anyone else who told me I should see ELITE SQUAD. It’s a good one.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Friday, April 8th, 2011 at 1:41 pm and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

27 Responses to “Elite Squad”

  1. “Elite Squad” is one of the best crime/police movies I’ve ever seen. It’s riveting right up to its perfectly-handled ending. The way it delves into the various viewpoints and sides of the conflict is particularly fascinating. I’m also eagerly anticipating the sequel but don’t have a clue if it will be available on DVD soon.

  2. It is indeed good as fuck. I got it by accident (asked my cousin to cop Monster Squad when he was at Target and he got this instead) but man it was like one of the coolest mistakes ever. I can’t wait to see this guy’s take on ROBOCOP.

  3. I haven’t seen this, but now I want to. I have seen BUS 174, and so should you (yes you reading this, unless you have, and that being said isn’t BUS 174 a good movie or what?).

  4. Anyone else want him to go all the way and move Robocop to Brazil?

  5. I watched Elite Squad 2 at the Sundance Film Festival and I actually thought it was better than the first one. It was definitely more ambitious.
    I wrote a review on IMDB but I don’t think it does the film justice.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1555149/usercomments-16

  6. I’m pretty annoyed, because I was recording this off the local foreign movie channel, but the reception was out of whack, so I just ended up with digital gibberish. I’ll have to look around and see if it’s had a region 4 release. Sounds like a couple of good films.

  7. Anaru – Yes. Yes I would.

  8. Alex – not sure if Elite Squad 2 is better, but it definitely gets a lot of points for being so different to the first one.

  9. “I assume we’ve all seen CITY OF GOD by now.”
    I haven’t, don’t judge me. I still saw the Godfather Parts 1 and 2 before you did.

  10. Knox Harrington

    April 9th, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    This movie has the best cure for sleepiness ever.

    All you need is a grenade and the will to live.

  11. Knox Harrington

    April 9th, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    I call it the Brazilian Redbull.

  12. Dear Vern,

    how to put this delicately but your reviews reads like the Amazon river on the map—-it meanders all over the place.

  13. Dear brad greenspan,

    How to put this delicately? Well, your comment reads like a kid with dyslexia – incorrectly.

  14. Brad Greenspan:

    What’s the point of your comments? You never have anything to say other than to take a shot at ol’ vern. If you dislike his style so much, why do you keep coming back?

    If you haven’t noticed, most of us on here act like the polite, educated people that we hopefully are. You’re pretty damn close to being a troll. If you’re going to make negative comments, you could at least bring up a valid point for your argument.
    Which you don’t.
    Taking shots then running is pretty shitty, dude.

  15. well look on the rbight side, at least Vern’s site has a grand total of one asshole, that’s doing pretty good as far as the internet goes

    anyway I could be wrong, but aren’t the favelas the worst ghettos in the world? I think I read that somewhere

  16. Knox Harrington

    April 10th, 2011 at 3:20 am

    Well, I’d argue the worst could be the Cape Flats. Ross Kemp says the scariest motherfuckers he ever met were the Numbers Gang here in good ol’ Cape Town (that’s where I live, by the way).

    P.S. No, I’m not a gangster or a criminal. I actually spend a large portion of my day doing everything in my power to ensure I never ever end up in a South African prison.

  17. actually Knox, wouldn’t District 9 be the worst ghetto there what with all the fookin prawns and whatnot? (sorry, couldn’t resist)

  18. Knox Harrington

    April 10th, 2011 at 4:45 am

    Yeah, Joburg’s a fokken dump.

    But I hear the prawns are actually quite nice and really just misunderstood.

  19. Hi Vern,
    I am Brazilian and a big fan of your writings.

    Your review was the most lucid I have ever read about Elite Squad!

    I recommend watching “Elite Squad 2″which is even better.

  20. sorry to go off topic but has anyone or seen the documentary about JCVD that is on here in the UK, called ‘jean claude van damme behind closed doors,’ seems like it would be on somewhere in the U.S. of A. things ive learned so far… he keeps lots of dogs like a macho version of an old cat lady.

  21. We talked about it a little in the “Popourri 2” thread. It definitely shows how exhausting and hard on his family his work can be, especially with all the less than ideal projects he must do. He seemed really disappointed not to be playing Napolean in the Czech Republic’s first 3D movie.

  22. Great review Vern – you should definitely check out the sequel which is even more epic, and features some harsh character archs for Nacimento and Mathias. And a slight nitpick: You got the context of Nascimento’s line wrong – it’s a response to a junior squad member asking what to do with this guy… in other words, it’s the poor dudes death sentence.

    And I agree that it will be very interesting to see where Padilha takes the Robocop reboot. I honestly was against rebooting this Verhoeven classic, until I heard that Padilha was doing it…

  23. Jareth Cutestory

    April 11th, 2011 at 8:37 am

    I don’t know about Jose Padilha making a ROBOCOP movie. I am not sure he is the guy who can faithfully bring Robocop’s trusty unicorn sidekick, Mr. Sparkles, to the screen.

  24. Saw this yesterday. I might have to recalibrate my controversial Best Movies of 2007 or 2008 list. Vern’s review covers things pretty well, so I’ll just add some of my patented vagueish spoiler-free impressions here to try to convince more people to check out TROPA DE ELITE (ELITE SQUAD).

    You know all those stupid quote whorish blurbs we see sometimes in big bold print splashed across some generic action movie’s posters & previews — “What a ride” “Thrill ride of the summer” “A tour de force of action” “Breathless entertainment” “Knockout…” “Powerhouse of…” etc. — and how 99% of the time they’re completely meaningless, unconvincing words, just a bullshit front put up in the ads to mask the mostly mediocre blurbs that the movie really receives in the more nuanced criticism that actually addresses its imperfections & failings instead of just giving a hand job to the producers & distributors?

    Well, ELITE SQUAD is one of the few movies that actually deserves some of those accolades. Breathless entertainment, gripping, tour de force, what a ride, etc.. It’s all fucking true.

  25. Finally got around to this one. Unfortunately I gotta be the dickhead and say I just didn’t care for it. The situation is initially interesting but then it just felt like a bunch of shouting and shakycam and constant blunt-force narration spelling out every little goddamn thing. I just couldn’t get into it. Kind of a bummer. Anyone else feel that way?

  26. Mr. Majestyk, you are unfortunately not alone. I liked the sequel even less…I had nothing of insight to add to the discussion and didn’t want to sound like a curmudgeonly asshole by hating on the Elite Squad saga seeing as how many of y’all were vibing on them but, yeah, I was just kinda bored and irritated by them to be quite honest. They both had a couple of good scenes I guess but I can literally barely remember anything about either of them apart from the incessant voiceover and the brutality of the Squad’s interrogation techniques. Consider me not at all psyched for the Robo remake.

  27. And yes, I am aware of the date of Majestyk’s post. But after I read it I thought – “Wait a minute…I feel the same way for real!” Have at me fellas!

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