director José Padilha
Fascism and the action film have been partners perhaps long before Dirty Harry (1971), but certainly nothing so new by 2007 when Brazilian director José Padilha’s Elite Squad came out. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Dirty Harry, so maybe it’s not the best point of reference, but even later films like RoboCop (1987) (also been a long while) took on the issue of a police state style tactics against an out of control criminal populace.
The big difference, at least in the Robocop films, or even in Judge Dredd comics or the more recent Dredd (2012) movie is a somewhat ironical commentary, positioning a narrative in a near or far future in which the world has evolved in cartoonish extremes, still meant to represent a picture of the present day. Padilha’s Elite Squad isn’t a portrait of the future, but a portrait of the recent past. Based on the book Elite da Tropa by sociologist Luiz Eduardo Soares and two former BOPE captains, André Batista and Rodrigo Pimentel, it’s a fictionalized version of a non-fiction history. And the fascist techniques that this elite troop of paramilitary police officers exact in the Rio slums isn’t at all ironic but is also portrayed as absolutely necessary.
Narrated by veteran Squad Captain Roberto Nascimento (Wagner Moura), the perspective of the film is sited within a man who leads ruthless raids on favelas, shooting first, threatening everyone in sight, condemning the rich who use drugs, dirty cops, anyone on the fringe of the law. It’s really not unlike the Judge Dredd character, cops that are judge, jury, and executioners. The criminals are vicious and armed to the teeth, and entering their world is to be utterly surrounded by life or death risk. Regular beat cops won’t even enter the favelas. They are considered lawless states. Until the Elite Squad rams in.
He’s about to become a father and he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Showing any mercy, any human feeling, is a breach not just of etiquette but a risk of life and limb to his men. And with one act of empathy he loses a colleague. He comes home, blames his wife, chases her out.
The story follows him trying to find a replacement for himself, with two keen recruits in his sights. One is cut from the same cloth as himself, the other is more socially minded, a law student, who works with other students who work to try social reforms with the favelas. Discussing Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, there is clearly acknowledgement of system critiques. But the students all end up being pot-smoking, would-be good-doers, unaware of the realities of police work. And ultimately, as often is the case in narratives like this, the fascist mentality wins.
Really, though, given the portrayal of Nascimento, the questions raised by the law student cop, and perhaps other aspects of the film, I don’t know that it’s a whole-hearted endorsement of the police tactics. Though, certainly, that seems to be a fairly consistent criticism of the film.
It was so popular in Brazil that a sequel was engendered, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010), which is in my queue. And Padilha’s star has risen to be given the apt directorial seat in the RoboCop (2014) remake. It seems familiar territory, though it will be definitely interesting to see what way he takes it. The original 1987 film was one of director Paul Verhoeven’s great science fiction films (including Total Recall () and Starship Troopers (), featuring his clearly comic use of irony along with slick effects and action. The two RoboCop sequels were written by notable comic book writer Frank Miller, and his lean towards fascist belief (non-ironically) probably is cause for some revisiting and reanalysis therein.
Elite Squad is a taut action film. Very well made, quite gripping. Morally questionable, perhaps.