Elite Squad

I read a novel about the War on Drugs a few months ago. It described the perspectives of numerous individuals involved in the story – CIA agents, Mexican drug dealers, Italian mobsters, and various other victims and innocent bystanders along the way. There’s one passage that was interesting to me that was supposed to be from the viewpoint of the central drug lord of the book. In essence, the War on Drugs was beneficial to his business – it made it difficult for new suppliers to emerge because the barrier to entry (and the risk) was so high and required incredible resources, which also drove prices up, making it fiscally viable to stay in such a volatile and dangerous profession. It’s an interesting take.

Elite Squad is a film that treats drugs as a spreading disease that infects all segments of society, especially through the corruption of the police force in Rio de Janeiro. A special squad is created called BOPE, composed of incorruptible cops that clean out the slums with assault rifles and copious amounts of police brutality. The central storyline of the film follows the retirement of Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura) who has to choose a successor before he leaves. Through a brutal training regime designed to weed out those unfit for service (morally as well as physically) Nascimento ends up with two choices: Neto (Caio Junqueira), headstrong and reckless (but effective), and Matias (Andre Ramiro), intelligent but potentially too faint-hearted for the violence that comes with the position.

Similar in style (though inferior to) City of God, Elite Squad is told at a frenetic pace with sharp editing, chaotic shoot-outs, nauseating torture sequences (there are several scenes where the police put a plastic bag over suspects’ heads to get them to talk – and it’s difficult to stomach), and a laundry list of characters outside the main three. I would never claim the film to be boring, but it ain’t breezy either.

The logic of Elite Squad is simple: drugs are bad. However, the film pushes that universally acceptable statement forward into more morally ambiguous territory by claiming that the only good drug dealer is a dead drug dealer and that state-sponsored death squads are a entirely acceptable way of bringing that philosophy to fruition. Yes, it is very violent, and can be upsettingly so – especially when the most violent characters are the “good guys” or the people we are supposed to root for. Throughout most of the film I was on the Elite Squad’s side, understanding that though their actions may be reprehensible it may be the only effective way of combatting the problem of drugs in their city. But then there’s a scene where they drape a plastic bag over a young drug runner’s head and threaten to sodomize him with a police baton…

The most interesting sequences of the film don’t take place in the slums or with the elite BOPE squad at all. Instead, they happen with Matias while he is attending law school classes and befriending upper-class students. In one sequence, the students unanimously criticize Brazil’s police force in a class discussion, and in another scene stage a demonstration for a slain student, much to Matias’ frustration. You see, the students smoke marijuana – which fuels and expands the drug trade in the slums, perpetuates the necessity for a strong-armed police force, and indirectly led to the death of the student they are demonstrating for. In Matias’ eyes, they’re hypocrites, but then again, it’s the drug trade that’s going to provide him with a livelihood.

Elite Squad is a worthwhile film to see. It has style to burn and quickly speeds to the finish line. However, there are several nauseating scenes of torture and the storyline and characters are never able to overcome the visceral impact of those sequences. It’s a good, but not great, film.

Grade: B

Sidenote: Why didn’t Captain Nascimento just choose his successor from someone already in BOPE rather than two rookies? I guess it’s just one of those discrepancies that provide a basis for the entire plot to exist – similar to Indiana Jones’ inability to just be happy teaching archaeology and hanging out at the museum.


3 Responses to Elite Squad

  1. Nostra says:

    Liked this movie a lot. I suggest you watch the second part as well!

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