Tuesday 18th January 2022

Elite Squad (18)
Directed by: José Padilha
Reviewed by: James Smith

In 2002 the Rio de Janeiro favelas were brought to the cinema screen in the stunning City of God. The young age of those involved and their brutal deeds was truly shocking, as was the absence of any form of law apart from that determined by the gang leaders. Elite Squad goes to the same location and situation, but from the opposite different perspective: the only police who dare venture into the chaos of the slums, the BOPE, or Tropa da Elite.

The 'fans' waited eagerly for Cristiano Ronaldo to take to the field...
The 'fans' waited eagerly for Cristiano Ronaldo to take to the field...

Set in 1997, the Rio police are set the task of cleaning the city for a visit by the Pope, a job which involves rounding up the worst of the gang leaders and putting them out of action for at least some time. The man charged with this is Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura), a hardened member of the Tropa, and he agrees provided it is his last big assignment - with his wife about to give birth, he wants out of this most dangerous of occupations. However, to be allowed to leave he must first find a replacement.

Seeing the violence in the slums from the other side of the law is quite eye opening. The police stop at very little in order to get their job done and they are seemingly given free reign. There hand out vicious beatings, revel in extended bouts of torture and frequently murder their targets. The Tropa are feared as much as hated and all the gangs avoid killing members of the Elite for fear of the repercussions - dead police officers are avenged ruthlessly. The film works particularly well if you are already familiar with City of God; I am sure that it would work well on its own, but in that case the behaviour of the police would be unfathomably brutal. Even so, the brutality is clearly unacceptable in a civilised society, but having seen how uncivilised the favelas are it is understandable if not forgivable.

Nascimento's replacement is to come from the Military Police, who also work in Rio but don't go into the favelas. The film follows two new recruits, Neto and Matias (Caio Junqueira and André Ramiro), as they enter that unit and discover it is full of corruption and incompetence. They aim to transfer to the BOPE but must first undertake the extremely tough selection and training program. The training camp shows how the BOPE become so hardened to violence through all kinds of physical and mental torture from beatings to being forced to hold live grenades after being awake for days on end. Several applicants are singled out for particularly bad treatment since the Tropa know through background checks which ones have demonstrated corruption before. Of course, Neto and Matias come through the training and move onto the streets, catching Nascimento's eye in the process. However, each has a weakness in Nascimento's opinion - Neto is headstrong and impulsive while Matias is reserved and lacks brutality - so he must choose which one he thinks he can change.

The comparisons with City of God are obvious but unavoidable - as well as the setting, the films even share a screenwriter. However, Elite Squad does suffer slightly in this comparison in several ways. Partly this is because City of God was so fresh and different - it's distinctive look imitated, but as a consequence is not special. Furthermore, City of God had the character Rocket for the audience to identify with (or at least sympathise with) and he acted as a filter to the violence; here everyone is brutal and any sympathy you may initially have for Neto or Matias is long gone by the end as they have become full BOPE members. Finally, the scope of the two films is quite different. City of God was likened to Goodfellas in that it charted the rise and fall of various gangsters over an extended time period; here the whole story takes place over less than a year and doesn't allow have larger scale arc to give it more depth.

Nevertheless, this is still a gripping and exciting movie; it is good to see a different aspect of the war - for that is essentially what it is - in the Rio slums and equally shocking to learn what the police feel they must do to survive there. If you enjoyed City of God, then this is a great companion piece and well worth seeking out.

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Length: 115 minutes
Certificate: 18
Official Site:
IMDB Link:
Release Date: 8th August 2008

Top Five Rating: 70.0%70.0%70.0%70.0%70.0%70.0%70.0%70.0%70.0%70.0% (70.0%)
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