Brazilian gang wars: Lifetime movie matter?

Basic rule of filmmaking: if you find a formula that works, exploit it.

At first glance, it looks like director Paulo Morelli and screenwriter Elena Soarez have read the handbook. Their film, “City of Men,” while not a sequel in the traditional sense, reintroduces the setting, themes and even some of the characters of the widely acclaimed “City of God” (not to mention that it’s also an off-shoot of a successful Brazilian television series of the same name). But here’s the catch: Instead of the explosively energetic, harrowing tale of the Brazilian favelas (slums), where survival of the fittest is not merely a saying, but a way of life, the viewer is presented with an emotional, mellowed-down and conventionalized story. The themes of fatherhood and friendship have pushed the gritty, stirring, raw violence that made “City of God” such an authentic movie experience into the background. Man is inferior to God indeed.

“City of Men” focuses on the friendship between two young men, Ace (Douglas Silva) and Wallace (Darlan Cunha). Introduced in “City of God” as 11-year-old buddies, they have been together ever since, growing up in the Dead-End Hill district of Rio de Janeiro. Now almost 18, the two are forced to face the unwanted challenges of adulthood. Ace is already a father with absolutely no idea of how to deal with this new responsibility. At the same time, Wallace sets off on a search for his own missing dad. Shocking details about the two boys’ fathers are soon uncovered, and the past threatens to break the bond between Ace and Wallace.

The catchy fragmentary style that made the storytelling in “City of God” so gripping is replaced with a more conventional, straightforward narrative. In its attempt to tie all loose ends securely, the movie comes up with some all-too-convenient and predictable, sometimes arbitrary decisions. To top it all off, the overly optimistic and naïve ending adds a whole new unnecessary layer of sugar-coating to the story. Considering the film’s subject matter, such a treatment appears too light-hearted and trivial.

Despite the inevitable comparisons between the two, “City of Men” is far from being a mere copy of its predecessor. For one thing, it is more of a friendship and fatherhood drama than a gritty account of the less-than-pleasant aspects of life in the slums. Herein lies its main strength: As an intimate, heartstring-pulling cinematic work, it is undoubtedly effective. The pessimistic tone has been softened, the bleakness ameliorated, and a more human, personal touch has been added to the exploration of the effect of poverty and violence on these people’s lives. That being in danger of becoming involved in an endless cycle of violence makes preserving any kind of meaningful relationship difficult is central to the movie. Its exploration of the themes of forgiveness, responsibility and growing-up, albeit sappy at times, ultimately feels candid and warm.

That’s why it would’ve done better to simply focus on the emotional story and leave the shoot-outs and the drug war to actual gangster movies. It feels like “City of Men” is trying to be two different movies at once and, as a result, comes close to becoming the Hallmark version of “City of God,” complete with the trademark family values package.

The cast’s performance, however, is definitely way above Lifetime Movie quality. Silva and Cunha have an easily detectable on-screen chemistry that makes their cinematic friendship feel completely natural and authentic. The former’s expressive face succeeds in projecting all the nuances of his character’s moods and inner struggles. Both Ace’s outward confidence and the fear and doubts that are often hidden behind it can easily be read on Silva’s plastic features. Another excellent performance delivered by Rodrigo Dos Santos as Wallace’s father captures the bitterness and despair of a man already beaten down by the cruel reality that the rest of the characters are still struggling against.

Good cast or not, when a gangster story attempts to be touching, it automatically loses that sense of larger-than-life toughness that makes such films appealing. Did you go “Aww, poor guy!” whenever Michael Corleone had it rough? Nope, didn’t think so.

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