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MOVIE REVIEW: Cliches ruin 'City of Men'

When it was released in 2002, Fernando Meirelles' remarkable debut, "City of God," felt like a revelation - an exhilarating work of stylized, energetic filmmaking that adopted the same reckless attitude and swagger of its protagonists, two childhood friends from the "favelas" (or slums) of Rio de Janeiro whose lives took different paths as they edged into adulthood.

The movie was nominated for four Oscars and launched Meirelles' career in Hollywood, where he proved with "The Constant Gardener" that he was no one-trick pony (his next film, an adaptation of a Jose Saramago novel, is due this August). "City of God" also spawned an excellent TV series, "City of Men," that aired in Brazil for four years, giving viewers a deeper look at life in the "favelas" (the series is available on DVD in the United States).

Now comes a movie spun off the TV show, also titled "City of Men," with Meirelles serving as a co-producer. The plight of Rio's impoverished urban areas may be as critical today as it was six years ago, but as far as movies go, the bloom is definitely off this rose.

Written by Elena Soarez and directed by Paulo Morelli, both of whom worked on the series, the movie is being billed as a companion piece to the original film, set in the same dangerous neighborhoods but this time focusing on two best friends, Acerola (Douglas Silva, who played the fearsome child killer Lil Dice in "City of God") and Laranjinha (Darlan Cunha, also a veteran of the first film), doing their best to stay above the constant fray of gang violence and drug-dealing surrounding them.

Ace, who is married and has a young son, struggles with the demands of fatherhood, while Laranjinha sets out to find his father, even though, like too many of the boys who live in their neighborhood, he has never met him. Meanwhile, a dispute between gun-toting thugs snowballs around them, eventually snaring both young men and threatening to derail their friendship.

Although the premise of "City of Men" sounds promising on a conceptual level _ can an individual avoid being tainted by an environment as toxic and pervasive as this? _ its execution alternates between clunky and banal. The bleached-out cinematography and restless camerawork, the quasi-documentary style of realism and the melodramatic turns of the story all come off as dated and trite. It's as if the filmmakers had purposely embraced all of the cliches that the first film deftly avoided.

Six years after its release, "City of God" is still electrifying and fresh: It hasn't aged a bit. "City of Men," though, already feels strangely stale.


2 stars

Cast: Douglas Silva, Darlan Cunha, Jonathan Haagensen, Rodrigo dos Santos, Camila Monteiro, Naima Silva.

Director: Paulo Morelli. Screenwriter: Elena Soarez. Producers: Andrea Barata Ribeiro, Bel Berlinck, Fernando Meirelles. A Miramax Films release. In Portuguese with English subtitles. Running time: 110 minutes. Rated R: vulgar language, violence, sexual situations, adult themes.