UPDATE, 11-11-11. Elite Squad 2, now called Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, opens today in New York (gradually spreading to more cities through December). As a reminder, I’m reposting my original review from Sundance. Yes, it’s true, I was probably desperate for a good film at that point in the festival, but I think the hyperbole was warranted. I dare you to see it and dispute me.
Oh my God. You guys, excuse me if I gush. It’s just that, when you come to the Sundance Film Festival, you go in expecting a certain type of film. You expect to see, as David Sedaris once wrote of student films, “grainy black-and-white movies in which ponderous, turtlenecked men slogged the stony beaches, cursing the gulls for their ability to fly.”
What you do not expect to see is a two-hour, Brazilian The Wire on steroids. Again, excuse me if I gush. I should really wait until I have some emotional distance from this experience before I try to write about it, to reflect a little first, but I don’t care. I’ve been standing in lines behind farting, greasy-haired weirdos and riding muddy, stinking buses all day long, and it was all worth it, because an hour ago I watched Brazilian director José Padilha choke out Michael Mann with his own nine-foot dick (Padilha’s dick, that is). Without resorting to cheap hyperbole, I can report that it kicked my balls up my ass and shat them back onto my chest while two-hand tapping an Eddie Van Halen solo. If that doesn’t make sense to you, you haven’t seen this movie.
I cannot imagine a more commercial film than Elite Squad 2. It has murders, car chases, Brazilian women applying tanning oil to be-thonged posteriors, machine guns, drugs, media critique, political intrigue, and cop drama. It also happens to be incredibly intelligent and well made. As violent as it is, the last thing it is is mindless. Elite Squad 2 is a movie Steven Spielberg might have made 20 years ago if he were a better filmmaker with bigger balls. It might be the most competently-made action film since Die Hard, and less cheesy.
Oh right, summary. The script, from director José Padilha, City of God writer Bráulio Mantovani, and Rodrigo Pimentel, follows (and is narrated by) Nascimento, played with understated brilliance by Wagner Moura, the leader of a ruthless special-forces division known as BOPE, as he manages the fallout from his handling of a violent prison riot (HEAD SHOTS! PINK MIST! BRAINS ON A T-SHIRT!) and gets promoted to a job in the government, where he discovers massive corruption. Other players include Diogo Fraga, a bleeding-heart lefty professor who calls Nascimento a fascist and happens to be married to Nascimento’s ex-wife; Fortunato, a loud-mouthed Glenn Beck type pundit who’s a dead ringer for Paul Sorvino, and Rocha, a dirty cop who learns that it’s more lucrative to run a protection racket yourself than skim off the drug gangs doing it for you (like duh, dude).
Even if Elite Squad was a Bourne-type popcorn flick with no ambitions other than putting asses in seats to see the kind of tits-and-fire filled catharsis spectacle we already know they love, it would be commendable for doing it incredibly goddamn well. But it’s more than that. It’s also a dead-on, insidery political satire the likes of The Wire or The West Wing, slick as hell, but clearly an inspired vision with something to say about the nature of crime, media, politics, and human nature. BOOM, THAT’S HOW YOU DO JACKET COPY, YOU WANNABE, PR-FLUNKY SLAP DICKS!
Other critics will like this movie, but I don’t know if they’ll rave. It’s not as hip to like a violent, straight-up action film with a decent budget, male leads, mainstream appeal, and nary a transgender character to be found. But I don’t know how you could deny this one. Could the protagonist, Nascimento be less of a boy scout? Less of a well-intentioned Jack Bauer who hates crime and loves his son, and more of a boozing, charismatic womanizer like McNulty? Yeah, probably. But like all the characters, he has a nuanced humanity that comes through, and he feels more like a real person than an archetype. And he plays a character that could easily fall into movie tropes, he’s like Jack Bauer meets Mr. Smith goes to Washington. Only he’s sketched skillfully enough that he feels like more than pandering. That’s the thing about Elite Squad 2 — an event will alter the course of the plot, then another will alter that course, in a way that seems spontaneous and improvisational, but before you know it, it’s become this self-sustaining, cause-and-effect loop Rube-Goldberg machine, feeling perfectly planned from start to finish. All the energy of improvisation with none of the false starts and wasted effort. Are we sure all the escaped Nazis moved to Argentina and not Brazil? This feels like the perfect Latin passion/German craftsmanship hybrid.
I expected a Brazilian movie to be vibrant and visceral and sexy and violent. As I’ve said before, if there was a World Cup of Not Giving a Fuck, Brazil would host, and nary a fuck would be given. What I did not expect was for a Brazilian movie to be so well-crafted and commercial. Commercial is usually an insult. It takes a pretty great movie to turn it into a compliment. I loved Elite Squad 2. It’s meat and potatoes and more. It melted my face off and kicked my balls in.
- It already opened in Brazil back in October, where it became the highest-grossing Brazilian film of all time and out-earned Avatar.
- It doesn’t have a date set for theatrical release in the US, but an English-subtitled DVD release can’t be far off.