City of Men
I just saved a lot of money by switching my car insurance!

Theatrical Release Date: 08/31/2007 (Brazil), 02/29/2008 (USA)
Director: Paulo Morelli
Cast: Douglas Silva, Darlan Cunha, Jonathan Haagensen, Rodrigo dos Santos

Here’s the trick with “City of Men”. It’s not a sequel to Fernando Meirelles’ amazing film, “City of God” (though he is a producer here). Yes, the film deals with the seedy underground and turf war culture of Rio de Janeiro, delving the audience into the legendary favelas of the city. And yes, the two main characters were in “City of God” but they’re playing different people in this film. However, “City of Men” is actually a continuation of the television series of the same name, which was loosely based on the concept and style of “City of God”.

Usually, when a bait and switch is done like this, I would thumb my nose at the filmmakers and make some snide comment. But after watching “City of Men”, that’s something I just won’t do. In fact, this is perhaps the best film to be released in 2008 so far.

Throwing aside comparisons to “City of God” for the moment, the film centers on two best friends (Ace and Wallace), who have grown up together and been like brothers. Each grew up without a father and live in one of the many favelas in Rio. Ace is newly married and the father of a young boy while Wallace seeks the attention of a girl with ties to a rival gang.

As the gang war escalates, the boys find themselves caught up in the middle of it, trying to salvage whatever they can of their dignity and future. They also go in search of their fathers, to find out where they came from, and to try and keep from repeating their paternal figures’ mistakes.

Considering this film clocks in at under two hours, I was almost astonished at the amount of back story and character development director Paulo Morelli was able to include. As this is a continuation of the Brazilian TV series (which is available for rent), the film uses flashbacks to illuminate the boys’ friendship and strong brotherly bond. All done like passing thoughts or memories, these served to enrich the scope of the film quite well and make it easy for people who haven’t seen the series to see where these boys are coming from.

Of course, as this is about rival gangs, this isn’t quite the tourism package Brazil highlights in its brochures. I heard more than a few people leaving the theater thanking their lucky stars we live far away from Rio, and while I have known people to go and vacation there, you can go ahead and count me out. Yes, I’m a scaredy cat … but I’ll be much more comfortable on the beach in Sydney, Australia where I’m not as concerned a shooting match will erupt in the neighborhood causing me to high tail it out of there.

As the production budget could not have been too high, while there is a lot of tension and gun play, there isn’t too much blood and there is no nudity. While I like blood and nudity (not necessarily mixed together), considering someone brought their 5 year old and an infant to the film, I’m glad the film won’t end up traumatizing them too much in comparison to a gritty FX TV show. (I’ll refrain from going off on my rant about bringing young children to adult-oriented films … this time.)

This lack of overt gore and violence actually didn’t bother me, as the elements that were shown more than gave the impression of what life in these favelas is like and provided a stark counterpoint to the story of the two main characters.

The acting is not necessarily stunning in the typical awards fashion but more appropriately, it feels genuine and sincere. Rather than casting the hot kids from the Brazilian version of “The O.C.” (though who knows if they aren’t basically), it feels more like the casting department held open auditions in the neighborhood. This pays off big time in helping to immerse the audience in the culture being presented.

If you like gritty films, set in dangerous neighborhoods but with a lot of heart, “City of Men” is the ticket you’ve been waiting for and I’m giving it a 4 out of 5. I think “City of God” is a more complete story with a tighter script and better overall film making, but that’s not to knock on this film. I thoroughly enjoyed it and this is something actually worth your ten bucks.