More noise than signal

Elite Squad

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com

It’s been bouncing around the festival circuits for a while, received positively, and only narrowly escaped coverage in one of our incomparable EIFF podcasts, but Tropa de Elite or Elite Squad thundered out to, er, a hugely limited release. Anyway, figured it’s about time we stopped rudely ignoring it.

The Elite Squad in question is BOPE, Brazil’s rough SWAT equivalent, called in for those tough jobs that normal rozzers either can’t or won’t satisfy. With police corruption endemic to the point of making 30’s era, pre-Eliot Ness Chicago PD look like a collection of angels, it seems that Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura) and his guys are the only ones not accepting payola from drug dealing gangsters or shaking down innocents for cash.

As such it’s natural for city bigwigs to call on BOPE to provide security for the Pope’s 1997 visit to Rio and while it’s briefly insinuated that this is going to be a peg on which to hang the film, it rather quickly becomes a complete irrelevance. The main thrust of the narrative deals more with Nascimento’s efforts to find a suitable replacement for himself in BOPE, as the understandable stresses involved in his job are starting to take a toll on Nascimento and his home life. He wants out, and seemingly can’t get out until he’s replaced.

The two obvious candidates are Neto (Caio Junqueira) and Andre Matias (Andre Ramiro), old friends and two rare straight policemen whose earnest efforts to make a difference are stymied by corruption and bureaucracy. Neto is described as the brains of the operation and Andre as the heart, which sounds more like something from a Pokemon cartoon than a gritty police drama, but what the hey. Neto also has hopes of becoming a lawyer and studies or the same at a local college.

It’s this that becomes the spanner in the works for the pair, with Neto falling in love with an idealistic student whose social work with the favella’s poor brings her, and by extension Neto into closer contact with the drug dealing gangsters than is particularly healthy for an idealistic young cop, and it’s not long before this starts to cause conflicts with his attempts to clean up the force as well as the streets.

I must confess, I didn’t really get quite what the fuss is about Elite Squad. For a film that’s walked away with a decent number of awards already, including the terrifying Golden Bear of Berlin, I was rather underwhelmed, although that’s not to say it’s a bad film. It is, however, a film with a structure that seems designed to dilute your attention amongst many strands and concepts that never quite mesh into the same narrative.

There’s the bit that deals with corruption in the po-po. There’s the bit that deals with the brutal admission / training programs for getting into the squad. There’s the bid that deals with Nascimento’s stress issues. There’s the bit that looks at social inequality. There’s a lot of bits, but when thrown together they bounce off each other and remain a bunch of bits rather than congealing into one pleasing film-shaped lump.

Most of the duty for keeping the film together falls on a narrative voice-over from Nascimento’s character, and while it’s functional enough to keep the film moving, it rarely feels like anything other than the easiest, laziest way to link scenes and serves largely to distance us from Andre and Neto rather than involving us with them. A pity really, as the acting performances on their own are more than good enough to tell us everything Nascimento does in V/O and serves as more evidence for the maxim that there’s practically no film with a voiceover that wouldn’t be immediately made substantially better by removing the voiceover.

For that more than anything else, I’m left if not cold then somewhat lukewarm by this film. The concept of City of God crossed with Narc, which is about as succinct a summary for Elite Squad as I can come up with, really ought to be a very compelling one indeed, but the execution falls a little too flat to make it a truly impressive film. It is however a film put together well enough to make it worth a look, certainly more so than many of the films we’ve covered lately, but I’m not sold on it being quite the revelation that it’s claimed to be.

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