Tribeca Movie Review: Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite)

A tough and realistic cop story that stays believable from beginning to end while delivering the truth about loyalty, courage and gut-wringing fear on an inner city military mission with no second chances

Oscar nominated writer Bráulio Mantovani (“City of God”), writer/director José Padilha and ex-Rio military police captain Rodrigo Pimentel team up to tell the visually stunning inside story of law enforcement in the drug saturated slums of Brazil’s Rio De Janeiro.

In the teeming backwaters of the barrios there are two legal systems.  The first, and most omnipresent, is the system of the drug lords.  Their police are armed with military grade automatic weapons and enough ammo to fuel a small army.  Their finance is a mammoth drug trade that pervades every corner of the city and generates enough money to pay thousands of salaries that the vast majority of people could never make any other way.  The justice system is simple: show an iota of betrayal or fail to put your life on the line and you, and your loved ones, are dead.
The other legal system is the elite Special Forces unit of the Rio police.  Named BOPE in this film these police offices go into the slums as soldiers go to war.  They creep in without being seen, scope the security of the other side and kill who they have to in order to make the collar.  From what we see in this film there is never an investigation into the resulting deaths.

Is this fantasy or the truth?  Probably a mix of the two, because the machine guns of the drug lords are documented well enough.  In any case the story that this film tells is so real and so visceral that the audience is right in the slums of Rio along with the BOPE force as they make their way from one hyperactive scene to the next.

The macho story of the gunplay is backed up by the self narrated story of Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura) who wants to get out of the force but is blocked by a big problem.  He knows he can’t leave until he finds somebody to replace him.  That person has to have heart and he has to have guts.  He has to understand the lives of the people of the slums and he has to be able to kill in a split second to save his own lives and the lives of his squad.

The captain’s pregnant wife is constantly hounding him to leave the dangerous duty that is his life before their child is born.  She can’t bear the thought of raising his children with him buried.  She can’t bear placing the dirt on the ceremonial flag over his coffin as she has seen done by others in too many funerals.

Nascimento has told his superior he is leaving and, amazingly enough, is given permission after the upcoming training camp that forms the selection process for admission in the elite squad.  Out of 50 to 100 veteran police who start the camp, only three to five make it in the end.  Bearing a similarity to a combination of US Marine SEAL training and Army Green Beret qualification, the camp quickly weeds out the weak until only two are left.  One with heart and brains, the other with the skill and attitude to kill in the blink of an eye.

When one of the two new elite squad members, André Matias (André Ramiro) tries to attend law school to learn more about his fight and the people on the other side, he is forced to compromise his identity to some of the students.  The other candidate, Neto (Caio Junqueira), wades into the thick of battle, a battle he is ill suited to fight.  This sets off a chain of events that threatens all three of their lives and the lives of those around him.  As events escalate upward into the torture execution of two fellow students, Matias and Nascimento are both forced to confront their inner fears and bear the brunt of the lives they have chosen.

A brutal film with a silver lining, Elite Squad stays as tough and realistic as the streets of Rio.  It doesn’t stray into “Mission Impossible” stereotypes.  The execution of the para-military operations appears to be legitimate; no hanky-panky, just get the job done.  The story is told by flashbacks that can lose the viewer who is not paying attention.  The timelines get a little mixed up.  There is a scene of ritual immolation that will hard for many to take, but it is carried off in a fashion that sticks to the story and doesn’t pander to gratuitous violence.

A great action flick that tells a believable story.

Release: Tribeca Film Festival
MPAA: Not Rated
Runtime: 101 minutes
Country: Brazil
Language: Portuguese w/English subtitles
Color: Color