Rio De Janeiro. 1997. The city's cramped shanty towns (favelas) contain hundreds of thousands of poor citizens and drug running is rife, the gangs controlling the favelas with a fist of iron. Two childhood friends join the Police Force in the hope of making a difference. Unfortunately for them, the Brazilian Police force is one of the most corrupt in the world and they are both given assignments that will keep them busy but bogged down within the system.
Neto (Caia Junqueira) is a bit of a hotheaded guy who quick on the trigger, and he's stuck in the motor pool. Trying to keep the fleet of squad cars going is a huge task for him and his two mechanics, especially as there's a lack of spare parts and the money to pay for them - and it doesn't help when police officers regularly swap out the engines for cash, replacing the original with a much cheaper engine.
Matias (Andre Ramiro) is a much more methodical and thoughtful guy, although lacking a little in common sense. He's given the job of organising rosters and manages to sort them out quite quickly so that the police can operate more efficiently, but that isn't what his corrupt commander wants, so promptly ignores his work. Also Matias is studying to be a lawyer and enrols on a University course, managing to hook up with one of the rich students without admitting he is in the Police - a frequent target of the left-wing leaning students.
Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura) is a commander in the elite State Police Special Operations Battalion or BOPE as it is known. BOPE are a force within the Police Force, fiercely uncorrupt and unafraid to tackle the corruption by both the Police and the gangs. Nascimento has been in BOPE for a long time and wearying of the job, especially with his wife begging him to leave due to having a baby on the way. The time has come to recruit his successor and a BOPE recruitment camp is planned. Nascimento has an idea on who he wants to succeed him but there can only be one…
Interview with director Jose Padilha - rather intelligent interview with the director who previously had done a lot of documentaries. This changed with the subject matter of BOPE and the Police war on the gangs as he realised he'd never get away with a documentary due to the co-operation he'd need.
Elite Squad was until recently the highest grossing Brazilian film of all time, and it's not that hard to see why. Brazil's problems with it's favelas and drug running are there for all to see, with the influence of the drug gangs plain to all. As Padilha found out, you can't even film in the favelas without making deals with the gangs.
But the deals were done and what you have is an extremely hard hitting film that is quite explicitly violent but also quite explicit on the problems that the average Brazilian faces. As Padilha recognises, BOPE are a necessary evil but a bit of a oddity in that they were formed within an already corrupt Police force but were themselves uncorruptable. Added to that, they were funded by a somewhat corrupt political system and a rich elite that also want to partake in drug taking activities that in turn give the drug gangs their power. It's a bit of an odd system.
Padilha attempts to recognise all of these issues within his film and it works beautifully. It is also a very violent film with the BOPE really fighting fire with fire, shooting first before asking questions and using plastic bag over the head to interrogate suspects. It's brutal but seemingly necessary in order to slow down the drug trade, it seems obvious that it can never stop with the rich essentially subsidising it.
Elite Squad is very much character driven with some rather unforgettable characters, both good and bad. It is at part a documentary as Padilha under the guise of Nascimento's narration explains what is going on, but it is also very much an action thriller that will have you cheering on the beret-wearing black-clad BOPE elite. I have no doubts that this is an accurate portrayal of life in the Brazilian capital, and I feel sorry for those who have to live there and what they must do in order to survive.