> Volume 5 > Number 11

Volume 5, Number 11

This Week's Reviews:  City of God, The Hunted.

This Week's Omissions:  Willard.

Capsule Reviews:  Agent Cody Banks, Tears of the Sun.

Fernando Meirelles

Alexandre Rodrigues
Leandro Firmino da Hora
Seu Jorge
Alice Braga
Philippe Haagensen
Johnathan Haagensen
Douglas Silva
Roberta Rodriguez Silvia

Release: 17 Jan. 03

City of God


The Cidade de Deus (Portuguese for City of God) was built in the 1960s outside Rio de Janeiro as a way to keep the lower classes away from the beautiful beaches accessible for city dwellers. The people who lived in the Cidade were usually black, lower-class Brazilians who had no real relationship to the government that was trying to domesticate them. Instead, they found the easiest form of governing in gang violence. Today, Cidade de Deus is a cancer barely outside Rio, with slum tenements, drugs trafficking, and rampant homicide.

Fernando Meirelles' City of God tries to create some historical perspective when considering the current state of the Cidade. The film carefully documents the rise to power within the gangs of the Cidade and the escalation of violence between warring factions beginning as early as 1967. Meirelles and co-director Kátia Lund (who served more as a consultant on life in the Cidade than as a director) continue their tale until the early 1980s, though reports from the current government (which called City of God a representation of everything in Brazil that needs to be fixed) is that not much has changed in the two decades since.

The 1960s to 1980s were far more different, though, with the rise of the aforementioned gang leaders and their grasp on the drug trade within the growing population of the Cidade. At first, the crimes are by the hands of three smalltime thieves called the Tender Trio. They take a Robin Hood perspective to their job, hijacking a gas truck, giving money to the poor local kids and provoking the residents to steal the gas cans in the back of the truck. For the people of the Cidade circa 1967, the existence of a gang means a form of social welfare.

The downfall of the Tender Trio comes when they try something larger. While their armed robbery of a bordello is criminal enough, it is the kid who gave them the idea that is truly disturbing to the already corrupt status quo. Li'l Dice (Silva) is probably no more than 12-years-old, but his plan is something that even his three twenty- something accomplices would never have imagined. What's more frightening, though, is that his interest is not simply in the robbery of all these victims, but also in their murder.

Li'l Dice grow up to be Li'l Zé (da Hora), and collects all the power that the Tender Trio once had. However, his place is not as the benevolent keeper for the underclass his precursors had once been. Instead, he watches over his drug-infested empire with sadistic rage. He is near having the entire market for himself, and his war (both personal and social) is just beginning. Even if he controlled the entire Cidade, one gets the impression that this would never be enough for him. There's always more power to be collected, and more victims to torment.

Li'l Zé is a character of Shakespearean levels. He is as much a Richard III as the tragic Romeo he wants to be. Li'l Zé is treated as ugly and unappealing (though his lack of attraction comes more from his actions than his looks), which only heightens his distaste for humanity. His best friend Benny serves as a pacifier to Li'l Zé's belligerent rage, though they were both part of the early turbulent years of the post-Trio Cidade. Benny begins as a Buckingham figure before finding his place in the more peaceful, fun-loving hippie lifestyle. When his conciliatory voice is gone from Li'l Zé's ear, his friend's hostility is free to destroy anything in its path. Without his Mercutio, this Romeo is more likely to kill Juliet by association than to console her.

It is certainly intentional that Benny's move from the violence of the Cidade streets comes in cooperation with his move from the black lifestyle of his cohorts. Turned on to designer clothes, popular music, and a beautiful young girl named Angelica (Braga) by a white kid, Benny could be seen as an affront to the dominant black culture of the Cidade. He has embraced the Anglo materialism that is meanwhile permeating throughout Rio. But the Cidade, as long as it is under the control of Li'l Zé, cannot be anglicized. This is not a vacationer's resort, but a dirty, ugly world to live in. Without the watchful eye of a despotic guardian, the fear is that the Cidade can be cleaned up and, thus, leave the grasp of Li'l Zé.

And so Li'l Zé begins searching for the imbalance needed to ensure his glory in his own world. But his search for both love (through rape) and domination (through murder) only incites the inner rage of an otherwise peaceful bus ticket taker named Knockout Ned (Jorge). The only drug dealer left besides Li'l Zé sees this as an opportunity to get support from someone in the event of an attack by Li'l Zé's posse (evidently consisting of kids age 12 to 21, all toting guns). And so, in the name of survival and retaliation, they begin a war in the streets of the Cidade that drafts every young boy in the slums as their lackeys. Outside of a small coalition of kids who have no interest in the power war beside them, only in the enjoyment of their own malicious games, the entire city seems to be divided between Li'l Zé's gang and Knockout Ned's gang.

All of this is seen through the eyes of Rocket (Rodrigues), the younger brother of one of the Tender Trio members. He wants to be a photojournalist, finding friendship in Benny, Angelica (who he had long pined over), and even Knockout Ned. But he tries to remain neutral as best he can -- he sees it as the only way to survive. Working his way from the bottom, Rocket finds support at a major Rio newspaper by being the only person willing to go in and take pictures of the gang war. Having lived there -- much like Lund -- his only attraction to the rest of the staff is that he's willing to go to the place where they'd assuredly die. Unknowingly, he, like Benny, has walked into the white world that the Cidade is so violently repelling.

Most of the comparisons City of God has received has been along the lines of "GoodFellas meets Pulp Fiction," trying to insinuate the gangland epic side of the story with Meirelles' kinetic photographic style. To a point, this comparison is misleading: Rocket, the film's protagonist, never wants to be a gangster like Henry Hill did, nor does Meirelles' push any real narrative conventions like Tarantino did. There is ingenuity to his approach, which is highly reminiscent of the barebones style of Robert Rodriguez in El Mariachi with the budget of a typical David Fincher film.

I think of City of God as companion to Alejandro González Ińárritu's Amores Perros and Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También that mixes the former's violence with the latter's vivacity. All three attempt to work some form of social commentary into a story that conforms to certain genre conventions, but do so by appealing to audiences through an upfront style that deviates from conventions of production and storytelling. By the end of the City of God, as Meirelles attempts to finalize the story of Rocket while reminding the audience of the continuation of the Cidade's violent soul, one almost expects Cuarón's cold, harsh narrator to add perspective to the scene. The magnitude of City of God comes in the fact that one is not needed.

©2003, David Perry,, 14 March 2003

William Friedkin

Tommy Lee Jones
Benicio Del Toro
Connie Nielsen
José Zúńiga
Leslie Stefanson
Robert Blanche
Jenna Boyd

Release: 14 Mar. 03

The Hunted


The Hunted follows two men, each with their own sense of right and wrong. Unlike the normal chase film, like Dirty Harry or The Bone Collector, which pits the good (if tormented) police against the malicious psycho, The Hunted has its villain come the higher order of psychologically altered realities. Not unlike First Blood, the Rambo film that begat a series of films defeating the pacifist vision of the original, the problem with the killer is that he has come to know his reality as one of a continuing war.

The post-Vietnam milieu of First Blood centered around a deep political meaning. Director Ted Kotcheff was trying to show that the terror of war extends far beyond the battlefield. As Rambo returned to American civilization, he was expected to drop his warrior ethics, which the film showed to be near impossible.

Considering that The Hunted was made in 2001 during the flurry of projects attempting to finish before the SAG strike, the intent of Aaron Hallam (Del Toro) and the battle stress that has turned him into a postwar killing machine comes less from a political viewpoint and more out of a love for entertaining thrillers. The fact that the film still remains unintentionally pertinent while effectively entertaining and thrilling helps to establish the minor adulation that this otherwise forgettable film deserves.

This comes as no surprise when one considers that The Hunted was directed by William Friedkin, one of the wunderkinds of '70s American cinema. Though his post-1973 films have been disappointing (with the occasional exception like 1997's 12 Angry Men), his value as a master craftsman of films good and bad has remained true. Even in his messiest productions (especially 2000's Rules of Engagement), Friedkin's grasp of cinematic pacing has been of incredible worth.

The Hunted exemplifies Friedkin's nimble editing by turning a two-hour story into a strong and speedy 90 minutes. Like the best action films, the tempo of the action remains taut and swift, with hurried successions of exposition and action. Though the screenplay by David Griffiths, Peter Griffiths, and Art Monterastelli includes scenes of excessive pointlessness (the inclusion of a lackluster group of FBI agents led by Connie Nielsen's Abby Durell is especially inane), they cannot completely derail the central story because Friedkin and editor Augie Hess rush through them as if they are as uninterested by these scenes as the rest of us.

Probably the film's finest moment is in an extended chase sequence, which rests between scenes of incredible pointlessness. However, for the ten minutes while U.S. Army combat trainer L.T. Bonham (Jones) pursues former pupil Hallam across Portland, Oregon, the exhilaration of both a great chase and a landmark moment in a career filled with great chases overpowers. Possibly Friedkin's finest work was the subway chase in The French Connection, which comes immediately to mind as Friedkin again follows a target through the mass transit system. The facsimile chase might not quite equal the chase in Jade, but it does help to alleviate the threat of momentary tedium.

Part of the reason Friedkin can get around the mistakes of his story is in his lead actors, both of whom seem out of place in a chase thriller considering their Oscar-winning caliber (the film's trailers, which tout the awards won by Del Toro, Friedkin, and Jones amidst a flurry of action clichés, help to remind audiences of the fleeting glory of an Academy Award win). Jones does deserve more attention as an actor other than the occasional tracker of fugitives (this is the eighth time he's played the law since The Fugitive made him a star), though it's impossible to imagine another actor who can as successfully balance weariness with obsession.

The script gives impossibly little for Benicio Del Toro to do in the film, though he still remains an imposing force. Del Toro was, of course, an character actor commonly chosen for heavies and henchmen (I suppose it's just too easy for Hollywood to make him a Central American villain than a hero of any sort -- even in Traffic, his police officer is amazingly corrupt), so he has much experience in this role. His willingness to get lost in such a role without letting it become a one-dimensional cliché is a credit that is as much indebted to his abilities as an actor as to the shortsightedness of Hollywood casting directors.

With 21 years between Jones and Del Toro, Friedkin's main intent with the film, short of being political, is to look at paternal relationships outside of the family structure. Immediately, the tone is set by a Johnny Cash voice over (he also performs "The Man Comes Around" over the closing credits) quoting Bob Dylan's "Highway 61": "Oh God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son.' Abe says 'Man, you must be puttin' me on.' God say, 'No.' Abe say, 'What?' God say, 'You can do what you want Abe, but the next time you see me comin' you better run.' Well, Abe says, 'Where do you want this killin' done?' God says, 'Out on Highway 61.'"

Cash's gruff voice gives the weary deity a tenor and intent that makes his statements ring throughout the film. (For the best in modern music videos, Mark Romanek's video for Cash's "Hurt" could be among the ten best ever made.) His place as God is understandable -- he is, after all, Johnny Cash. By the end, once we've been privy to the inner struggle of paternal Bonham attempting to capture and perhaps kill child Hallam, the connection between the aged Cash/God and Bonham/Abraham becomes irresistibly perfect.

©2003, David Perry,, 14 March 2003


Agent Cody Banks

Probably the most disturbing thing about a film like Agent Cody Banks is that it shows the speedy aging process of today's children. Muniz, who at 16 is currently judging debaucherous competitions on MTV Spring Break, plays a spy kid who must seduce another 16-year-old so he can help the CIA get to her father. X-ray glasses and Angie Harmon are part of the package, though their presence should serve more for the dads in the audience than the kids. For the tykes, rewatching Spy Kids would be a better choice.

Harald Zwart

Frankie Muniz
Hilary Duff
Angie Harmon
Keith David
Daniel Roebuck

Release: 14 Mar. 03

©2003, David Perry,, 14 March 2003
Tears of the Sun

As if the loud and pointless Black Hawk Down was not enough to satiate those who love unprovoked war films in which one side has the moral authority over the other while carnage is treated as harrowing for the good guys and successful for the nondescript bad guys, Tears of the Sun comes to fill any void felt since Ridley Scott's film. Throw in the rejoicing millions who salute the liberating forces and the deification of the warriors and you see just how poor the timing of the film's release is: this same movie is about to come on CNN.

Antoine Fuqua

Bruce Willis
Monica Bellucci
Coel Hauser
Fionnula Flanagan
Johnny Messner

Release: 7 Mar. 03

©2003, David Perry,, 14 March 2003

Reviews by:
David Perry