In most countries, you would expect the users of firearms and automatic weapons to be the military, but in Rio De Janeiro this is not the case, for the majority of guns are in the hands of the criminal gangs as they wage their own war against the police. How can the law combat this when the gangs have run rampant through the slums? They usually fall back on the city's elite squad, the BOPE, and armed unit of policemen who are there to provide backup to the cops when they cannot cope. Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura) is one of those men, but he wants out for the sake of his pregnant wife, though with the Pope's 1997 visit approaching, the heat is being turned up...
Elite Squad, or Tropa de Elite as it was originally known, was a sensation in its native Brazil where bootleg copies flooded the streets yet it still became the biggest hit at that country's cinemas for that year. Comparisons with the earlier, but still fairly recent City of God were soon to follow, yet where that film was impressively stylish in its telling, here the story was presented as plainly as possible, with the constant threat of violence supplying much in the way of tension. Yes, there were action sequences to rival any traditional thriller of the day, but it was the regretful view of society that really made its mark.
There are three main characters, the aforementioned Nascimento and two new recruits to the BOPE, one an idealist called André Matias (André Ramiro) and the other Neto (Ciao Junqueira), who is eager to get his hands on a rifle and start shooting the bad guys. We soon see who is best suited to the world of Rio's criminal underground. The director, José Padilho, initially intended for this film to be a documentary to complement his earlier film, Bus 174 which took the gang members' point of view, but then found out all too quickly that what the cops said to him off camera was not what they would admit to on camera.
Therefore a fictional work, based on actual experiences (one of the writers was a policeman), was made, and there is an authenticity to the drama which unfolds that has you believing that things really are as bad as they say here. Not that the characters are especially likeable, with Nascimento a borderline psychopath even if he is supplying us with our near-constant narration to guide us through his world. He ends up so stressed by his job that he has panic attacks and sees a psychiatrist who puts him on medication, though by the end he thinks the only cure for his anxiety is to quit as his wife says, or to kill some people he feels are worse than him.
All with official backing, of course. Nascimento has to choose between Matias and Neto as to who can be his successor, and this involves either going with the man who is as violent as he is, or corrupting the man who is there for the right reasons but can be twisted to become one of those trigger happy hard men who he wants his squad to consist of. So in a melodramatic manner this is a battle for Matias' soul, as Nascimento seems to be past saving; the younger cop is training to be a lawyer but makes himself unpopular at university by voicing his faith in the police. We see that crime even reaches the higher classes who make up most of Matias's fellow students, who are all happy to fund the gangs with their insatiable cannabis habits, but the cumulative effect of this does not fill you with righteous anger and a drive to change this society, but a deadening of hope as you realise that nobody has any answers. And with every scene, from a romantic dance to a shoot out, filmed pretty much the same way, Elite Squad becomes sadly monotonous and dispiriting. Music by Pedro Bromfman.
[The Optimum Region 2 DVD has a trailer and an interview with the director as extras.]