It's rare that a good film will irritate me, but it happened at least fifteen times during the rather intense Brazilian import Elite Squad, and here's why: The film is saddled with an omnipresent voice-over narration from the main character, and this running commentary deflates, detracts, and nearly ruins every GOOD thing about the movie. Every time the viewer is offered a chance to think for himself, make a decision about a specific character, or draw a moral conclusion about the onscreen mayhem -- up pops the stunningly unnecessary voice-over monologue. After a while it starts to feel like the filmmakers simply don't trust your intelligence, and so they insist on explaining every scene, every theme, and every possible motivation the characters might have. It's a damn good thing that Elite Squad has some other very solid assets in its corner, because that narration almost kills the whole movie.
Based on the book Elite da Tropa by Andre Batista, Rodrigo Pimentel, and Luiz Soares, Elite Squad takes us inside two very different Rio de Janiero police units. On one end we have the "regular" police, most of whom are either sickeningly corrupt or simply ineffective. On the other side we have the BOPE, which is Brazil's ultra-elite unit of peace-keeping ass-kickers. Even the regular cops step to the side when the "elite squad" arrives on the scene, and it's the leader of this unit who becomes our entry point.
Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura) has a plan to retire from the dangerous squad, since his wife has a baby on the way and the Captain is tired of being shot at by drug dealers three times a week. In an effort to find his new replacement, Nascimento keeps his eye on two young recruits: One a straight arrow who aims to be a lawyer one day, and the other a hot-headed idealist who doesn't mind cracking heads. The rest of the characters are either corrupt cops, slimy villains, or snooty college kids who never really stop to think where their weed comes from -- and at what cost -- but for the most part we're sticking with the increasingly desperate Nascimento, the volatile Nito (Caio Junqueira), and the stoic Matias (Andre Ramiro).
At its best, Elite Squad is a powerfully gritty, slyly engrossing, and unapologetically brutal story of cops, crooks, and the (very few) people in between -- but much of the film also feels like an obvious flip-side to Fernando Merielles' vastly superior City of God. Fans of simple "good guys and bad guys and the horrific things they do to one another" will find some solid roughage in Elite Squad, but the movie never gets nearly as introspective or insightful as Meirelles' film. And even when Elite Squad does offer some moral gristle worth chewing on, we're instantly assaulted with yet another volley from the narration track telling us what we just saw and how we should feel about it.
The three leads are uniformly excellent, and director Jose Padilha does a consistently fine job of creating a world that's both fascinating and horrifying (not to mention sweaty and intense), but it's really difficult to "get into" a movie that keeps interrupting itself every four minutes. For all its worthwhile components and admirable audacity, Elite Squad stands as an exotic cop story with a pretty simplistic message (hey, corruption is bad and so are drug dealers) and a clumsy narrative gimmick that mars the movie at almost every turn. Sorry for carping on it so redundantly, but if you yank that ceaseless narration track, Elite Squad is -- in numerous ways -- a much better movie.