Expect the Expected

'City of Men' is almost tolerable, if you go in with really, really low expectations

City of Men is being packaged as a follow-up to the hit film City of God, though it has a different director, screenwriter and slate of characters. So, really, all they have in common is a couple of producers and a setting. By that logic, Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha could be seen as a follow-up to Godzilla.

In short, I've seen City of God, and City of Men is no City of God.

Instead of the expert pacing and editing of the Fernando Meirelles/Kátia Lund-directed City of God, Paulo Morelli's City of Men is a sort of clumsy, TV-movie-esque take on growing up in the violent hills of Rio de Janeiro.

The film starts with Ace (Douglas Silva) and Wallace (Darlan Cunha) giving expository dialogue that was so blatant and clumsy that it was hard to believe it was spoken, and not part of the opening scroll for a Star Wars movie. The scene, which I reconstruct from memory, goes something like this:

Wallace: I'm about to turn 18; I grew up in the slums, and I don't know who my father is.

Ace: I, too, am turning 18, and yet, though I knew my father, I find no comfort in that, since he was shot dead when I was but a boy. Also, I have a wife to whom I have always been faithful, and young son, a state of affairs that I find to be both a blessing and a curse.

Wallace: We are like brothers and have been friends forever, and nothing shall tear us apart.

Ace: Excellent. Let's now, for no good reason, and after 18 years of doing nothing about it, attempt to find your father so that, if someone were filming our lives, there would be some kind of plot.

Of course, that's only a rough approximation. In the actual film, the dialogue was a little more blatantly obvious.

So: Ace and Wallace go looking for Wallace's dad, and somehow wind up leaving Ace's infant son alone on the beach, because either it's easy to forget about a screaming child who's standing right next to you, or Ace is not a very good father.

Meanwhile, a gang war is heating up on the hill where Ace and Wallace live, and since the gang leader is Wallace's cousin, there's some intimation that things will not be going well.

In contrast to the flat and obvious story of two friends who are about to (spoiler alert!) be torn apart by a secret from the past, the gang story is actually reasonably well-handled. That's probably because gang violence works well in a two-dimensional format, and requires only a few lines of exposition to set up.

So when Midnight, leader of the local bad guys, goes to war against Fasto, his former lieutenant, the motivation is well-established without the need for an awkward talking-heads sequence.

The gang fights are also nicely filmed, occurring at night on the twisting streets of Rio's hillside neighborhoods. Strangely, the gun battle involving dozens of teenagers with automatic weapons doesn't seem to draw any attention from the police, whereas, later, a man passes a bad check, and an entire SWAT team comes to take him down. Note to Rio de Janeiro's police department: prioritize! Perhaps that's just how they run things down there; I haven't spent much time in Rio, so I couldn't say for sure.

In any case, the film has enough other flaws to sink it. Notably, it is bad news when an audience laughs at a film, and at the screening I attended, that happened more than once. The best of these moments was when a gratuitous sex scene was thrown in, and 1970s porn-funk started playing. To be fair, it was really, really good porn funk.

Still, awkward scripting, a tired plot and TV-drama acting don't do the film any favors. But on the level of a TV movie, it's a reasonably passable one. The film moves at an obvious, overly explicated, but not tiresome pace, and even though you could see the ending coming from some kilometers away, it's not a completely unwelcome ending.

So if you have nothing better to do, I suppose entering City of Men with low expectations could produce a tolerable film-going experience. And I write that only so I can get a quote on the promotional material: James DiGiovanna of the Tucson Weekly says: A Tolerable Film-Going Experience!

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