I was ruminating a while ago about the impact of the South Korean film industry on the willingness of anyone to come and visit Korea, but last night forced me to face up to the reality that there's probably a permanent tension between the Film Board and the Tourist Board wherever you go. Time to find a new problem.
Elite Squad was a modest international success a few years ago, and was the biggest movie in Brazil that year. I picked it up cheap on DVD expecting … well, I'm not sure what I expected. Probably a cop thriller, since I'm shallow that way. It's not that kind of a movie, though it was marketed that way. There's action, but it's not thrilling, edge of the seat kind of action; it's more mechanical than that, and works only because the movie has tried to get you invested in the characters, so any risk at all to them will having you leaning forward at least a little.
In a way, the whole plot of Elite Squad is a weird inversion of a timeworn narrative for criminals. In movie after movie, we're shown that when you treat your underclass badly, they live down to the bad expectations and become ever worse. It's the "movie liberal" explanation of all crime. Welcome to Elite Squad, which shows you the same origin story for paramilitary police. It's based on a tell-all book written by a couple of veterans of BOPE, a shock unit of the Brazilian Military Police who get to do all the really deadly police work in Rio de Janeiro. And when I say deadly, take it all the ways that I might mean it.
The basic plot of the movie is that the grizzled veteran captain of one of the companies wants out, but can only get out if he can select a replacement; so we see the slow development of two possible replacements from rank and file police officers to aspire to something more. For the purposes of dramatic simplicity, one's a hothead who acts first and thinks - not at all. The other is a police officer turned law student, and a huge part of the unfolding drama is the contrast between his police life and the lives of the upper class university students he's trying to fit in with. Weirdly, he's the one who isn't made up; he's loosely based on one of the writers.
BOPE are - and I can say this at a safe distance - a bunch of heavily armed thugs who justify everything they do on the basis that criminals are scum and all the other cops are corrupt. And the movie goes out of its way to endorse that outlook; every other cop we see is somewhere on the sliding scale from laughably corrupt through laughably corrupt and inept all the way to so corrupt it's stopped being funny. If this is even close to the truth, I'm not quite sure how Brazil can actually function without spontaneously turning into Mogadishu, but if nothing else, it's a warming reminder of how lucky we are with the cops that we've got. Yeah, cop-haters wherever you may be; the Brazilian fuzz are still that bad in this movie.
It's kind of hard to see who isn't despicable in this world view. The cops - we covered that. The criminals; well, criminals, aren't they? Everyone else; well, we really only see the middle class, and they're pompous self-obsessed whinge-bags who hate the cops and collude to various degrees with the criminals while hating the cops. Kind of left me wondering who was left for BOPE to be on a self-righteous crusade to protect.
Each other, I suppose. By the time the movie is over, none of the BOPE characters seem to have any working relationship with anyone other than their fellow praetorians. Everything and everyone else has failed to live up to their expectations, and somehow, this almost seems liberating for the characters. Millwall has come to Rio "No-one likes us, we don't care." Since everyone is both despicable and hates them, everyone is fair game. You can shoot them on the run, torture them to find where the next runner might have got to, and finish them off as they lie there begging for mercy. Judge Dredd would fit right into BOPE.
What I can't quite decide is what the movie wants me to think about this. I know what I actually think; what I can't figure out is whether that's the reaction the movie set out to cause. Because it seems to me that if anything, it was set up as an apologia pro BOPE vita; the most sympathetic BOPE character is the wannabe lawyer and he's rebuffed at every turn for every decent thing he tries to do until he's left with nothing but to pull on his black combats and blow away the bad guys. It's as if the movie is howling, on behalf of the goon squad, "Look at the monster you've made of me! This is all you deserve!" Worse, it's as if the movie's decided to give a vivid justification for every small time fascist who ever figured that all the untermenschen really needed was a good kicking to show them who's boss.
Never mind the poor old tourist board; if this is Brazil, then god help them all.