Rio de Janeiro, 1997. Captain Nascimento (Moura) wants to retire from Brazil’s BOPE squad before becoming a dad, but first he must find his replacement. Two rookie cops (Junqueira and Ramiro) are candidates, but are they tough enough?
Brazil’s BOPE squad is a bit like America’s SWAT team. But, instead of Colin Farrell and L.L. Cool J grappling with Olivier Martinez, this is a frantic depiction of police brutality in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Gunfire rings out across the favelas and bodies litter the streets, setting the scene for an intense hellride through a world of violent drug lords, disenchanted dirty cops and idealistic upstarts.
Roberto Nascimento is captain of BOPE, the unit charged with tackling drug-related crime in the favelas. He thinks nothing of interrogation techniques that end in grisly death, involving, say, a plastic bag over the head. But his methods get results so, when he plans to step down (at the behest of his pregnant wife), his superiors won’t let him go without training a replacement. Enter hot-headed Neto (Caio Junqueira) and do-gooder Matias (André Ramiro), keen to be in BOPE but naive about the job’s realities. Matias is at law school, dithering between being a cop or a lawyer, so he sees first-hand the chasm between the spliff-toting college kids and the drug lords who provide their wares.
The violence is horrific - a man being squeezed into a tyre stack and set alight is an image you’re unlikely to forget - but not gratuitous. And the soundtrack helps create the chaotic favela atmosphere rather than glamorising the brutality. Sadly, Nascimento provides an irritating and unnecessary voiceover throughout, narrating events that the audience can already see and are quite capable of judging for themselves.
This is where director José Padilha’s inexperience shows. He’s best known for documentaries like 2002’s Bus 174, and this is his first stab at drama. In fact, the film started out as a documentary, until Padilha realised he would risk his life making it. Instead, he co-wrote the script with Rodrigo Pimentel, a former BOPE officer, and Bráulio Mantovani, who earned an Oscar nomination for City Of God in 2004.
Exhaustively researched, Elite Squad picked up the Golden Bear at Berlin earlier this year. Presumably the judges found it refreshing to see a cop film that isn’t black and white, in which nobody is the good guy - and it is. But it would have been better without the intrusive voiceover.
Despite the voiceover, Padilha has created a shocking insight into a world in which corrupt cops slug it out against drug dealers but, ultimately, nobody wins.
Reviewed by Rosamund Witcher