Don’t be fooled by the fact that City of Men is being released by Disney’s grown-up arm Buena Vista – this is about as far from a Disney flick as you could hope to get. Set in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, though the central tale of the nature of friendship and loyalty may be precisely the sort of thing Disney has always thrown at us, we’ve yet to see cute animated talking animals frolicking around to a backdrop of extreme poverty, drug-fuelled gang wars and the ever-present threat of violence. (It’s hard not to want to see them try it though, eh?)
To get a better idea of what to expect, note that this is a semi-sequel (though entirely unofficially) to 2002’s multi-award-winning City of God. In 2003, that movie was deservedly nominated for four Oscars including best editing, director and screenplay, despite being a foreign film.
The basic plot could, in fact, make it seem almost a remake. As with that first movie, this too revolves around two childhood friends coming of age in Rio. One chooses a life of crime; the other tries to save his friend from a choice that will most likely see him die an early and bloody death.
But don’t think sentimentalism here – again, forget the fact that Disney is acting as distributor. This is far more in the vein of Tarantino and early Scorsese than a simple, predictable study of the relationship of two characters. As that too could lead to the wrong impression – though there’s certainly a strong emphasis on beautiful cinematography and almost stylised violence – the relationship at the heart of the film
is complex and engaging enough to still form its core.
Part of the reason for this is that City of Men has been adapted from the hit Brazilian TV series of the same name that ran, in the wake of City of God, for twenty episodes from 2002-5. Think a grittier, more flashily-shot version of The Wire (assuming you’ve had the luck to see that masterpiece of modern television) and you’ll have some idea. With twenty episodes’ worth of character development to play with, the filmmakers and actors had more than enough material to create something genuinely engaging.
Of course, the slight problem with this being adapted from television is that in comparison to City of God it, well, sort of feels like it. Where that earlier film was a wilfully over the top riff on gangster movies coming from what was then an entirely unexpected source, thanks to the half decade gap and the recent glut of similar films coming out of Latin America, City of Men feels both less fresh and somehow smaller.
Which is not, of course, to say that it’s not well worth a look or that it doesn’t have its own contributions to make. After all, if we dismissed everything with a similar premise, no one who’d seen The Odd Couple would have bothered watching Steptoe and Son, Men Behaving Badly or Peep Show. And just because this has a slightly less grand feel to it than its predecessor is likewise no reason to turn up our noses. Think of it instead as a starter, an entrée to the TV series. If you like this – which if you like gangster movies you’re bound to – then be safe in the knowledge that there’s another ten hours or more of the same just waiting to be discovered on DVD.