Saturday, August 09, 2008

Review - Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite)

"God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That's flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character"
– Adaptation (2002)

While the above line – spoken by Brian Cox as Robert McKee – overstates the case somewhat, it's easy to sympathise with McKee's sentiment when faced with a film like Elite Squad. Voiceover narration can be a potent tool in a filmmaker's arsenal, but it's one that must be handled with kid gloves. For every perfectly pitched film like Days of Heaven, Goodfellas or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, there are dozens of films in which the soundtrack chatter feels like a lazy shortcut; more of a distraction than a guide. In Elite Squad, the central character is a Brazilian police captain named Nascimento (Wagner Moura), who commands the marine-like BOPE squad, a highly trained elite unit that's unafraid to go where regular officers fear to tread. Set in Rio in 1997, the film follows Nascimento as he searches for a young replacement to take the reins after his impending retirement, and every step of this journey is narrated by the character in the same droning, emotionless tone. Nascimento's ceaseless commentary explains in detail his character's thoughts, feelings and actions, and then – as if that wasn't bad enough – the seemingly omniscient narrator offers the same service in scenes that have nothing to do with his character, dutifully spelling out the stories of young cadets Neto (Caio Junqueira) and Matias (André Ramiro).

The way director José Padilha leans on Nascimento's non-stop narration suggests he lacks confidence in his own ability to tell this story. This is a shame, because he showed in his previous feature – the outstanding Bus 174 – that he is capable of handling narrative with a lighter, more intuitive touch. He tries to maintain some semblance of documentary-style rigour in this would-be exposé of Brazilian law enforcement, employing a gritty, unvarnished aesthetic, but while Elite Squad's authenticity is never in doubt (former BOPE captain Rodrigo Pimentel helped bring his own book to the screen) its value as a piece of cinema is harder to determine. After opening with an onslaught of loud music and aggressive, heavily edited camerawork, the picture quickly goes limp. For all of the brutality on display the action is repetitive and lacking in real impact, and as Padilha develops his separate story strands involving Nascimento, Neto and Matias, he doesn't give us enough time with any of them to really get a sense of them as people. Most of the time Elite Squad just feels like an inferior version of TV's The Shield, sorely lacking that show's strong characterisations and its ability to skilfully interweave its disparate story elements.

About an hour into Elite Squad, Padilha finally begins to give his movie a sense of shape. The so-so storyline of the opening half – the desire to clean up Rio's streets ahead of the Pope's visit – is unceremoniously dropped, and the director finally focuses on more personal dramas. The boot camp sequence, in which Nascimento puts a group of wannabe cadets through a punishing regime, is the first really engaging section of the film, and the subsequent revenge mission Nascimento launches against local kingpin Baiano (a snarling Fábio Lago) is reasonably compelling. Aside from this efficiently staged action, Elite Squad does have some interesting points to make. It presents the Brazilian police force as being as corrupt and sadistic as the criminals they hunt, and it firmly addresses the hypocrisy shown by students who protest against gang violence, when the drugs they purchase help to keep those same gangs in business.

But what, ultimately, is Elite Squad trying to say about the BOPE themselves? Is Padilha admonishing their fascistic tactics, is he revelling in them, or is he collapsing clumsily somewhere between those two stools? The film's lack of a solid, coherent viewpoint works against it, and there's really nothing here – in terms of storytelling or filmmaking – that distinguishes Elite Squad from other recent South American films that have covered similar territory, such as Carandiru and El Bonaerense. Of course, the picture looks particularly weak when held against its most obvious influence, Fernando Meirelles' City of God. That film wasn't perfect, but it told its story with a clear artistic vision and a bracing kinetic energy. In contrast, Elite Squad simply wants to pummel us into submission.