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As far it goes, José Padilha's Elite Squad does a solid job compartmentalizing the foremost concerns of decent cop movies. Set in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, this aggressive take on contemporary Brazilian crime wars gets intimate with the details of the problem and neatly packs them into the requirements of the genre. Narrated by Captain Nacimento (Wagner Moura), a hardened leader of the titular unit intended to punish the city's grimiest offenders, the movie quickly establishes the usual suspects. Nacimento is a jaded man abiding by his own rules and gearing toward retirement as his wife prepares to give birth. His cynical perspective of the law enforcement goes as follows: Cops either go corrupt or engage in constant warfare with the twisted infrastructure. As a warrior, he finds himself at odds with the ignoble majority while seeking out a replacement. Nacimento's gradual realization that the one rookie squad member with a steady moral compass, Matias (André Ramiro)-who also goes to law school-presents a dangerous irony. Matias vainly applies his smarts to both academic and militant outlets, constantly struggling with the knowledge of criminality everywhere he goes. "You can't be a cop and part of the cool crowd," sighs Nacimento, although not to the new cadet's face. Matias' transition from naive defender of the force to ferocious lawman forms the central-and best-written-part of the story. Peeks inside the meticulous design of Rio's drug system, and the cops' keen recognition of it, recall early episodes of The Wire for their detailed portrayal of an ongoing struggle against authority. Padilha's sharpest observation involves the empowerment of the rich and oppression of the poor as a result of misconduct on both sides. This "micro power relationship," as it's called in Matias' law class, turns the new cop into a servant of justice in a society practically devoid of it. Eloquent takes on Brazilian crime don't get much better than last year's pitch-perfect documentary, Manda Bala, which does a sensational job of placing blame on the country's government (although it exclusively focuses on kidnapping). Less organized, Elite Squad nevertheless succeeds at putting the worst of the violent spectacles on screen, primarily through a series of nicely staged shootouts and torture sequences. With no need to hide its viciousness in a Guantanamo Bay of its own, the squad has a way of getting answers, and Matias learns to overcome his hesitations about motivated police brutality once his tranquil options lead nowhere. "We mold our men from pain and humiliation," Nacimento boasts, although his assertion simultaneously serves as a complaint. -- Elite Squad Directed by José Padilha, at Landmark Sunshine, Running time: 115 min. --

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