(On Cable TV, December 2013) It takes a long while for Elite Squad 2 to get going, but when it does it almost entirely upends the certitudes of its predecessor. 2007’s Elite Squad was a Brazilian action film that took a hard look at the war between favelas drug dealers and the quasi-military police forces fighting them. After seeing the first film’s brutal display of violence and retribution, anyone could have been forgiven for coming to the conclusion that extreme violence is the appropriate response to impose law and order in violent slums, no matter the price paid in dehumanization. But writer/director José Padilha is willing to push his vision further. As Elite Squad 2 begins, our returning narrator, once again played by Wagner Moura, is clearly against those “left-leaning intellectuals and potheads” that are threatening his work in cleaning up the slums. But the film progressively shifts as the drug dealers are replaced by corrupt policemen working alongside equally-corrupt politicians. Soon enough, the protagonist finds himself fighting “The System” of protective rackets and excess taxation imposed by the very same people who once got rid of the street dealers. By the end of the film, he’s forced to make allies with the same left-wing intellectuals he once despised, in an attempt, perhaps ineffective, to fight against his new enemies. While Elite Squad 2 may be a bit too light on the action and a bit too heavy on the drama (there’s little focus to the script for foreign audiences, as it seems more willing to settle scores within Brazil), it’s certainly admirable for the way it graphically describes a complex system of corruption, shifts allegiances and even unceremoniously kills off a recurring character. When corruption comes from within, there are no easy answers, and even fewer excuses for a shoot-‘em-up climax.
(On DVD, September 2011) It’s really unfair to compare Elite Squad to City of God, given the latter’s well-deserved reputation as one of the best films of its time. But the comparisons go beyond the fact that both movie come from contemporary Brazil: Both of them, after all, have been written by the same screenwriter, and if City of God was more interested in the criminal and bystanders, Elite Squad takes a look at the elite police forces fighting to clean up the corrupted mess that is modern-day Rio de Janeiro. But don’t think for a second that the focus on the police forces makes for a kinder, gentler film: Even the protagonist seldom hesitate to gun down suspects, torture persons of interest or indulge in a bit of gratuitous cruelty. Unusually structured, the film is narrated by a retiring police officer as he tries to pick a successor from two promising, but uneven recruits. Wagner Moura is sympathetic as the narrator, but it’s André Ramiro who captures the film with a performance that sees him go from a good-natured intellectual to a revenge-driven warrior. The solid script may skip over some of the transitional states, but it opens with an effective bit of structure, and ends at the perfect moment. The cinematography lushly captures the moden favelas, and a few action sequences help lift this dramatic thriller into more exciting territory without necessarily sacrificing the themes of the film to a purely action-driven film. A pretty good example of why even populist filmgoers should pay attention to world cinema, Elite Squad is a fascinating look in a very different culture where crime and punishment play out differently. It’s a damning indiction of police corruption and the endless cycle of violence that seems to grip the area, but mostly it’s an entertaining police drama with a heavy dose of moral relativism. The picture never bother to punish transgressions, in part because it’s so difficult to see who never goes beyond moral decency.