Sold as the flipside to City of God (2006), and sharing the same screenwriter in Bráulio Mantovani, Elite Squad offers a semi-fictional account of BOPE, the Special Police Operations Battalion that wages brutal war against the drug-trafficking militias in control of the Brazilian favelas. It opens circa 1997, amidst a buzzing nightclub where patrons openly brandish machine guns. A group of cops inadvertently trigger a mass shootout that brings childhood friends-turned-rookie patrolmen Neto (Caio Junquiera) and Matias (Andre Ramiro) into contact with the ruthlessly efficient BOPE Captain Roberto Nascimento (Wagner Moura).
In an environment rife with corruption and where violence is used to control violence, cops “either turn dirty or go to war”, narrates Nascimento. But moral uncertainties and tension with his pregnant wife (Maria Ribeiro) have left him prone to panic attacks. He wants out and is looking to find a successor, between righteous yet impulsive Neto and the more sensitive, intellectual Matias, who is pursuing a law degree and a relationship with vibrant, left-wing idealist Maria (Fernanda Machado). However, his activities as a cop leave him little tolerance for the dope-smoking, liberal college kids who sell dope to fund their philanthropic activities and dismiss the police as corrupt mass-murderers.
The second half heads into Full Metal Jacket (1987) territory, as it details BOPE’s nightmarish training regime. New recruits are beaten up, marched until they vomit and forced to eat off the ground. When Matias falls asleep during a midnight lecture, Nascimento makes him hold a live grenade. While Neto slowly transforms into a kill-crazy zombie, it is the initially more thoughtful Matias who becomes the monster Nascimento needs. Callous enough to dismiss the killing of his college friends by gangster Baiano (Fabio Lago) as just punishment for their liberal stupidity and ruthless enough to torture and kill women and children to uphold justice.
Elite Squad adopts the same ambiguous, non-judgemental tone that nets gangster movies great acclaim, but here drew considerable criticism. Although a huge, popular success in Brazil, several international critics including Variety’s Jay Weissberg denounced it as “a one-note celebration of violence for good that plays like a recruitment film for fascist thugs.” So is it a right-wing apology for police brutality? Given that José Padilha made the probing, socially responsible documentary BUS 174 (2005), this is unlikely. Yet the jibes at naïve students and liberal do-gooders risk alienating the very audience who would normally flock to a film like this. We see Nascimento violently lecture a young student for his complicity in the drugs trade, while the well-meaning Maria is regrettably cast aside as hypocritical and weak.
Episodic and taking some time to thread its disparate plot strands together, this is strong on morally challenging factoids, like how Pope John-Paul II’s decision to visit a slum prompted BOPE to kill 32 drug-dealers to ensure his safety. The decision to attack trendy, drug-advocating intellectuals as complicit in a social ill is perhaps brave, yet this it offers no alternative to BOPE’s basic tenet that violence can control violence, the futility of which supposedly spurs Nascimento to quit. Consequently his moral dilemma appears skin-deep, mere lip-service paid to those who may dismiss the film as right-wing. While far from the fascist tract some have dismissed it as, the film adopts the same political neutrality favoured by BOPE, which while true to its subject matter, remains somewhat problematic.