City of Men is based on an extremely popular Brazilian television series of the same name, which in turn was based on 2002's critically acclaimed City of God. Like its predecessors, Men takes place in a vibrant, lushly shot slum stocked with teenage gangs and poverty.
Ace (Douglas Silva) isn't a gangster, but a flaky teenager with a toddler already under his belt. Devoted to his best friend Wallace (Darlan Cunha), he actually forgets his son at the beach following a spontaneous decision to help Wallace track down his real father. As the two pals race off, the little boy is left tottering amid the ocean's coming waves. It's an intense scene—to the extent that it was only later that I realized how problematic it was. Why did Ace and Wallace choose that very moment, hanging out on the sand, to zip off and find a father who has been absent Wallace's entire life?
The answer: City of Men has a complicated plot to reveal, and it doesn't have time to mess around. The almost comically naïve Wallace proceeds to find his dad, a troubled ex-convict who harbors a dark secret that will ultimately jeopardize his friendship with Ace, not to mention the entire film's legitimacy. A too-neatly woven backstory undercuts City of Men's gritty portrayal of senseless gang violence and poverty, and Silva and Cunha, while likeable enough, simply seem too well fed (Silva is downright chubby) and content to exist in this world of struggle. While City of God, with its bullet-riddled slayings committed by 12-year-olds, was content to depict senseless horrors without reason, City of Men desperately wants to give us someone to root for. But it's hard to root for characters you don't believe in.