Controversially winning the Golden Bear at 2008’s Berlin Film Festival, Brazilian director Jose Padilha’s pulse-pounding, breathless assault to the senses, Elite Squad was a difficult pill for many to swallow with its muddy, ambiguous morality seemingly at odds with its hyper-kinetic visuals and visceral violence.
Tough, gritty and co-written by a former member of Rio’s paramilitary police unit BOPE,Elite Squad was a relentless adrenaline rush of a movie, a ruthlessly unsentimental dissection of a society under siege as seen through the jaundiced eyes of those charged with both its protection and its suppression. While it smashed Brazilian box office records and became a worldwide hit, many people (particularly middle class film critics who had once taken a salsa class) saw Elite Squad‘s partisan portrait of the elite, incorruptible police unit BOPE and its war against the drug gangs that rule the favelas as little more than a recruiting film for fascism. This time around, in a logical and seemingly inevitable progression, it’s Brazil’s dodgy cops and corrupt politicians in the crosshairs for Elite Squad: The Enemy Within.
Picking up where the first film left off (don’t worry, you don’t have to have seen the original; the entire film is re-run in the opening credits), Elite Squad: The Enemy Within sees Wagner Moura reprise his role as Roberto Nascimento, the tough, no-nonsense commander of Rio’s paramilitary police unit BOPE. After bloodily suppressing an apocalyptic prison riot, Nascimento finds himself under fire on TV from his ex-wife’s new husband, liberal professor and human rights campaigner, Fraga (Irandhir Santos), and hung out to dry by his bosses who are desperate for a scapegoat. Rather than fire him, they promote him, kicking him upstairs to a more bureaucratic role heading an intelligence unit, figuring how much trouble can he get into there?
Unfortunately, they’ve put the one cop in Rio who’s incorruptible and determined to make a difference in a job where he’s in charge of every wire-tap in the city and, after masterminding a new offensive targeting street crime, Nascimento comes to suspect that a militia of dodgy cops have merely stepped into the vacuum left by taking criminals off the street. Out of his depth and swimming with the sharks, Nascimento finds himself forced to navigate the treacherous corridors of power, uncovering a web of corruption linking crooked politicians, corrupt cops and organised crime in the process. Increasingly isolated and paranoid, Nascimento realises that the price of doing business in Rio may just be the assassination of himself and his family…
A more mature, measured film than the original’s rabid action thriller, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is still more violent than a shark in a tumble dryer, packed full of tense stand-offs and violent shootouts. The pace is relentless, the adrenaline-fuelled action sequences benefiting from some frenetic, down and dirty handheld camerawork and choppy editing in sharp contrast to the smoother, soaring cityscapes and fluid interiors as the story shifts from the slums and ghettos to the cavernous offices, boardrooms and corridors of power, Nascimento discovering that scum rises to the top.
Retaining much of the first film’s cast and crew, Padilha’s film is breathless and brutal, the political labyrinth Nascimento finds himself in every bit as deadly as the favelas’ grimy streets. Moura is magnetic as the honest, incorruptible anti-hero, a shoot-first, ask-questions-later kind of cop who suddenly finds his life filled with nothing but questions. He’s ably supported by Andre Ramiro as Matias, his friend and protégé, and the wonderfully slimy Milhem Cortaz as the cowardly, self-serving corrupt cop Fabio, both returning from the first film while, as the liberal politician Fraga, Irandhir Santos manages to take the bare bones of an upright, sanctimonious lefty and give us a convincing moral and ethical foil for Moura’s Nascimento.
Fast, furious and complex, Padihla’s labyrinthine thriller is a stunning portrait of Rio as a city driven by corruption at all levels, an almost Boschian vision of Hell.