A huge box-office hit in Brazil, where it was supposedly seen by millions on pirated DVDs before even getting into theatres, Elite Squad has the idea that it’s a realistic look at the negative effects of police brutality in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. But in reality it’s nothing more than a gussied-up cop film where the hyper-violent methods of the SWAT-style quick-response unit under examination are more than easily justified by the paper-thin villains (cop, civilian, and criminal) they are put up against.

As the portentous voiceover explains all too clearly, Elite Squad is the story of a pair of idealistic police recruits manipulated by a nearly burnt-out veteran. Captain Nascimento (effectively hollow-eyed Wagner Moura, from Lower City) is at the end of his tether with Rio’s B.O.P.E. squad, a black-suited militaristic unit with tattoo-worthy skull logo whose M.O. seems to be going into Rio’s drug-lord-controlled favelas and shooting anything that moves; the only police work displayed by these gunsels involves assault rifles. Nascimento shepherds a rare pair of non-corrupt new cops, Neto (Caio Junqueria) and Matias (André Ramiro), through the B.O.P.E., hoping that one will prove able to take over once he retires after his wife delivers their first child. The pressure builds as the squad is pushed into high gear to clear out a particularly rough neighborhood in the lead-up to Pope John Paul II’s 1997 visit to the city (allowing a lot of cynical jokes from the cops about ensuring the Pontiff’s sound sleep).

Based on a book by Rio cop Rodrigo Pimentel, who also contributed to the screenplay, Elite Squad is remarkable in the moral latitude it allows its protagonists. While in interviews director José Padilha has tried to explain that the film is in fact an indictment of the hyper-militarized attitudes on display, that mentality is nowhere in sight on the screen. The deeply saturated colors, sleek editing, pulsing music, frequent gunplay and teeming favela settings are all powerfully reminiscent of City of God, a film that Elite Squad shares a number of its technical crew with, not to mention a certain exploitative attitude. But while City of God tried to explain the motivations of the violent criminals whose story it told, Elite Squad goes beyond that to exempt its protagonists from any moral culpability. All the societal groups outside the B.O.P.E. squad—from malevolent drug dealers to corrupt cops to hypocritical liberal elites—are shown as so morally deficient that the only purity on display is the squad itself. It’s shocking that Padilha, whose Bus 174 remains one of the most intelligent and affecting documentaries to come out of South America in years, would let his film get suckered by Pimentel’s clearly self-serving and limited story.

A Golden Bear winner at the 2008 Berlinale (where it was one of the most highly anticipated films), Elite Squad will certainly be able to garner more notice than the average foreign film in the States, due primarily to its high-impact story and whip-fast pacing. But it’s a film unable to integrate its B-grade pulp storytelling with the occasional stabs at social relevance, and the ridiculously simplistic and sawed-off climax makes for an insulting finish to an under-thought and offensive advertisement for police-state violence.