One Night We Are Dining in Kowloon – Then Soon After We Are Watching Cops and Drug Lords in a Fight to the Death in Rio

It’s Wednesday. the 16th, and here I am about to review a film called Elite Squad which is set in the favelas and mean streets of Rio de Janeiro in faraway Brazil. A week ago, last Tuesday night I was far away from my home in Sarasota, Florida. That Tuesday was my last night, half away around the world, in Hong Kong.

I had planned a dinner with my friends Yu Ling, a technical designer of children’s clothing, now working in Mongkok, a section of Hong Kong, and Jeannette, an architectural project manager now working in Causeway Bay, another Hong Kong neighborhood.

Nathan Road and Peking Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon

After a few phone calls, the restaurant as well as the place and time to meet were set. It seems like Hong Kong is wired everywhere. Your cell phones work even three levels down in MTR stations and trains. When you ride these trains it is hard to make eye contact with anyone because either they’re on the phone talking and are oblivious to you, or playing a game on the phone, or web-surfing on their smart phones. I met Jeannette first on the corner of Nathan Road and Peking Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon which is across the harbor from Hong Kong Island. That happened rather easily because I called her, on my decidedly plain vanilla, borrowed Motorola and said, “Jeannette where are you?”  I’m standing right under the Sun Flower sign.” Bingo, she spotted me. She said she had to run off to pick up some tickets and would meet us at the restaurant. Two minutes later, I met Yu Ling on the opposite corner.

Ashley Road

Off we went – traveling west on Peking Road. Ashley Road is the 3rd street west of Nathan Road – and if I hadn’t met Yu Ling right then, she would have had to find the restaurant on her own. I had given her instructions, It’s either the 2nd or 3rd street down from Nathan Road. Turn right when you see the Omega Watch sign right at the corner”. We headed up the block and soon enough were seated in Gaylord, an Indian Restaurant at 1/F 23/25 Ashley Road. In Hong Kong, when giving an address, you can, and should give the floor number as well, as most HK restaurants are not at street level. 

 We were set up in a large booth, a semi-circle big enough to seat 3 very comfortably, or five less  comfortably. That’s it – the 2nd booth on the right of the picture to the right. Jeannette showed up shortly and after a great dinner consisting of Vegetable Samosas, Chicken Korma, Lamb Madras, and Chicken Biryani, plus one order of naan bread and one order of paratha bread, plus six Kingfisher Beers, we said our goodbyes. ‘Joi gin‘ means see you in Cantonese. I had a 4:50 AM wakeup call for the next morning. I was bound for my return flights home from HK to New York with Cathay Pacific, then from JFK airport onto Atlanta with Delta, and then change for a different plane for my flight into Sarasota.

Now that I’m back home, I’ve repopulated my Netflix queue, and Elite Squad arrived today. Released in 2007, Elite Squad, or as it was called in Brazil, Tropa de Elite, is about the Rio slums or favelas, and an elite squad of tactical police called BOPE, whose mission is not so much law enforcement as it is the eradication of the drug lords that rule the favelas.

This is not a film for the sensitive or the faint-hearted. From the extreme fire-fights in the streets of the favelas, to the brutal interrogation methods employed by the BOPE officers, to the downright excessive boot camp training of the BOPE candidates in which it is a good year if three out the 25 make the cut – the intensity level of this film starts at strong, and soon goes through the roof with hardly any down time at all.

The main character is Captain Nascimento played by Wagner Moura (above). He’s married, with a kid on the way, and he is one mean-ass cop. He’s doing his best and his wife wants him out of BOPE and into a less demanding and less dangerous line of work. Unfortunately, his daily work is more dangerous than almost any other because by the time BOPE is called in – things have already spun out of control.

Matias and Neto (l to r)

He’s got two guys who are already cops but they’re trying to get into BOPE. Neto played by Caio Junqueiro (Above right) has been assigned to supervise the motor pool after a disastrous night on the streets when his quick trigger finger got another cop or two killed by the drug crew. Only the motor pool is out of funds. One car is cannibalized so another might run, and headquarters hasn’t any money for him. So he has to steal a payoff to get some cash to fix the cars. You won’t believe who the money that he intercepts is intended for.

Matias and Maria

Matias played by Andre Ramiro  is a cop and is also trying to become a lawyer. He joins a group of students in a favela, and his girl friend Maria (Fernanda Machado) is living in the same neighborhood as one of the most brutal of the drug lords, Baiano. Matias hasn’t told her that he is also a cop. Once the secret is out – people will start dying – and in ways almost too brutal to describe.

Fabio Lago as Baiano

Baiano's handiwork - she got a bullet to the head, he got doused in gasoline while encased in automobile tires, then he was torched

Rocinha favela up close

Both Neto and Matias make the cut for entrance into BOPE. So there’s your set up. Three cops and a drug lord and his minions of street based retailers of drugs, look-outs, and the gunmen that back them up. Directed by Jose Padilha, the film is dense, claustrophobic, as well as noisy. There’s a lot of action at night, and the dialogues overlap, plus there is a grainy effect at night. Those things along with the jittery hand-held cameras that are utilized during the raids and ensuing fire-fights make the film a bit of work for the viewer.

That's Rocinha on the far left and center as seen from Ipanema Beach -The Dos Hermanos (Two Brothers) Mountain overlooks the setting.

But the payoff comes in the tension, the pressure, and the excitement. While some of the police were corrupt and in the pockets of Baiano and his ilk, and the residents of the favelas were living in an area where desperation and danger lurked around every corner created there by poverty, the murderous drug business, and the firefights with the BOPE . Director Padilha has left the beauty of the Copacabana and Ipanema beaches out of the film. We see Sugar Loaf Mountain only for a brief instant and we don’t see Christ the Redeemer standing tall above Rio from his perch atop Corcovado at all. The film isn’t about Rio’s highlights – instead it is about the places where visitors are unlikely, or rather shouldn’t, go to. This place is so dangerous, that mean streets isn’t even close to being an accurate description.

There was a bit of controversy about this film. Many people felt that the BOPE tactics were as criminal as the activities of those who were their targets. Others said that the film sort of made those BOPE officers heroic while Nascimento was just as good at killing as Baiano and that was hardly heroic. You’ll have to see the film yourself in order to decide what is the right answer to that question.

That is, if you have time between struggling with the decision to buy either the Kindle Fire from or the Nook Tablet from Barnes & Noble as a Christmas gift for yourself or your significant other. Black Friday is approaching rapidly.