Fernando Meirelles' 2002 smash City Of God had a curious problem most films would love to share: It was almost too entertaining. Was Meirelles' kinetic exploration of violence and criminality in Brazil a searing, timely exposé, or a cheap holiday in other people's misery? It felt somehow indecent and even exploitative to derive such visceral pleasure from such grim subject matter. City Of God became a huge hit, scoring four Oscar nominations, winning a fervent cult (it's currently ranked the 16th greatest film of all time by Internet Movie Database users), and inspiring a hit television series called City Of Men.
Now the City Of God series has come full circle. The television series spun off from City Of God, which itself was adapted from Paulo Lins' 1997 novel, which in turn was based on a true story, has hit theaters in the big-screen adaptation City Of Men. Got that? Alas, in the trip from real life to literature to film to television and then back to film again, the series has lost a step or two. City Of Men boasts the same hyper-saturated, vivid look as City Of God, but the pacing is much more relaxed. Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha co-star as best friends coming of age together in the drug and violence-infested slums of Brazil. When Cunha reaches his 18th birthday and seeks out the father he never knew, he uncovers dark secrets that threaten to destroy his brotherly bond with Silva. Meanwhile, a violent gang war puts everyone's life in danger, gang-affiliated or not.
City Of Men has its share of problems, but being too entertaining isn't one of them. The film isn't bad by any means, but after God's adrenaline-shots-to-the-heart rush, the laid-back storytelling comes off as a little sleepy. In many ways, Men is more mature than City Of God: It wrestles earnestly with biblical issues of fathers and sons, legacies of violence, and the tensions that develop within even the strongest friendships. Yet it lacks the splashy, showboating panache of its big-screen predecessor. Much has been gained in transforming an entertaining action extravaganza into a leisurely, substantively family drama. But much has been lost as well.