Monday, January 13, 2014

Was Just Supposed To Be An Action Flick (Movie Review)

Talk about your haves and have-nots!

Been quite a while since I watched 2007's "Elite Squad" set in the notorious slums of Rio De Janeiro. I was ambivalent when I put it in my queue but after watching the epic "City of God" set in those same slums I became fascinated by this sort of wild west in a labyrinth that consumed miles of land and lives. Inevitably, one's true character is revealed when living in that de facto prison.

The slums of Rio make Boyz in the Hood look like a picnic. They are a suffocating, inert place of hand-to-mouth living where only the very exceptional escape. For me, it's borderline unwatchable especially since I know that many films will exploit a situation like this to set up some sort of hero to "clean up" the place and save the day and blah, blah, blah. We like to think some force can save us from ourselves but there's not.

Don't get me wrong, done correctly without pretension a hero flick is quite enjoyable to me. "Die Hard" or "District 13" are fun watches - I just don't consider them social commentary. The original "Elite Squad" was social commentary so I had to squirm as I watched a special squadron of police (BOPE) set up to fight not only the rampant drug dealers in the slums but also the vast corruption of cooperating police forces.

I wanted a grittier look at the favelas (shanty towns) that I had originally witnessed in "City of God" which stretched out over several decades showing the temptations and dangers from a middle class perspective. The picture painted by "Elite Squad" was much bleaker and darker and the amount of firepower by the criminals was horrific as well as people having no real police force for protection. Who do you turn to?

"Elite Squad" provided that answer but I never really bought that as a solution. Problems like the favelas require a much more complicated answer than a host of AK-47s. That's just sticking your finger in the dam to buy time until a real solution comes along. I thought to myself, "That shit won't work for long." Turns out, the filmmaker was thinking right along with me!

The sequel "Elite Squad: The Enemy Within" had a promising title but really I just expected the further adventures of the BOPE unit. Instead, I got one of the most satisfying social commentary films I've seen in a long time. I guarantee you, no American movie would embrace these sort of truths which makes fools of so many various groups. It would not market test well.

What we have is a reprise of the first film's characters who kicked ass and brought at least a semblance of order in parts of the slums. But we find this only allows for the institutionalization of corruption by the state as predators of a different sort come swooping in. Cops get a regular cut of the drug dealers' profits, duplicitous politicians buy favela votes with the seeming order they have brought and in the end no hope is to be found.

Yup, not exactly an American ending.

Director Padilha is brilliant in showing the interconnecting interests of the corrupt officials while Nascimento, the hero of first film who leads the BOPE squad, spends this film slowly but surely having his eyes opened as to who the real enemy is: the enemy within. When he refuses to play ball he's removed from his command but actually given a promotion to a position where it's expected he can do less harm to "the system". But Nascimento has plans!

Still refusing to see there is no ultimate authority of good he hatches a plot to starve the favelas of drugs. No drugs, no drug money, no money for corrupt cops. Cops will have to go on the straight and narrow then! But this backfires in the worst way. The criminal cops merely adapt by taking a mafia-like control of the vital utilities of the vast favelas. Cable, water, electricity, etc. must all run through the cops now and they find themselves making many times the money they did from payoffs. Oops.

What I found particularly satisfying was the shameless two-faced depictions of the politicians. They are running their own game from the highest quarters using the deadliest weapon of all: politics. I loved the scene of them whooping it up and dancing with the very favela residents they are screwing over. The fearful residents wish too hard for the idea of protectors and when the drug violence is minimized these creeps come in as conquering heroes. The theatrics, the glory, the adoration they all clearly relish. No different than a Ted Cruz rally here in America.

In the end our hero is left with only one thing: the truth. First he must realize the reality of his situation to get it out and then he must rely on a population that actually gives a damn about the truth. There is no worldly solution for the second part. What is encouraging is the reaction to the film. Over 11 million viewers made it the most seen movie in Brazilian history. It also became the highest-grossing film of all time in Brazil, surpassing (the god-awful) Avatar.

"Elite Squad 2" is the final film in a trilogy by the director which explores Brazil's cycle of social inequality and a search for real solutions. Had I known he was only exploring the false ones to expose them I would have had a much more enjoyable experience. Now that you know, go watch them!

American trailer naturally markets it as an action film. Don't be fooled!

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