The most expensive Brazilian film ever made ($5 million), Tropa de Elite was leaked and sold as a pirated dvd on the streets weeks before its release, but word of mouth – mostly due to its controversial subject matter – made it the biggest box office hit in Brazil of 2007.
In many ways the anti-City of God (co-written by one of its writers) the film takes the viewpoint of the police force in Rio de Janeiro, mainly the BOPE, a sort of free range SWAT team dedicated to urban warfare in the city’s crime-infested favelas. Taking place in 1997 during the months preceding the pope’s visit to the country, one of BOPE’s Captains, Nascimento (Wagner Moura), is having thoughts of retirement with his first child coming along and must choose a successor. Choice lies between two young police aspirants, the bookish Matias (André Ramiro) and impulsive Neto (Caio Junqueira).
While Tropa de Elite sometimes appears to take an even-handed approach to its subject matter – the police force is openly shown as corrupt – in the end its message appears to be that you can’t fight fire without fire (unsurprising, considering the film is based on a book by a BOPE officer). Even though a desperate situation exists in the favelas, the connections between BOPE and a German SS death squad are easily made, as they carry out executions and tortures of unarmed, dressed in black with skull insignia. This is not helped by the main performance and many cliché-ridden voiceovers of Captain Nascimento, who comes off as a Brazilian Dirty Harry on zoloft, and the depiction of protesting students as bleeding heart liberal pot-heads. The director Jose Padilha (Bus 174) doubtlessly aimed for something with more nuance but Tropa de Elite has more in common with a primitive eighties action film than not.
Still, fascinating and occasionally (guiltily) thrilling.