Brazil has long been famous for many things. Beautiful beaches, tanned gorgeous people, soccer, carnivals and more. But in more recent times, the movies emerging from the country have exposed a darker side, most notably in the drugs and guns of City of God (2002). Along similar lines was Jose Padilha’s Elite Squad (2007), which revealed a Rio of two worlds. The wealthy, idyllic side and the poverty of the slums. Caught between them were the police, battling both criminals and the temptation of corruption.
The film was a significant domestic success, despite its controversial subject matter. So, to 2010’s Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, which was an even bigger domestic hit – in fact, the biggest box office film in Brazilian history, usurping Avatar from the country’s record books. The movie swept on the international festival circuit – which led to its subtitle that somewhat obscures the fact it is a sequel – garnering awards and rave reviews along the way.
The story picks up some years after the events of Elite Squad to the point that this is effectively a stand-alone film. Having seen the original does deepen the arcs of the lead characters, but overall is not a requirement for seeing Elite Squad: The Enemy Within.
Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura) is now Lieutenant Colonel of the often-brutal military police BOPE, also known as ‘The Skulls’ after their death’s-head emblem. His private life is shrouded in confusion and loneliness as his ex-wife (Maria Ribeiro) moves in with a left-wing politician (Irandhir Santos) whose ideals are in stark contrast to those of Nascimento, and are ideals he begins to pass on to Nascimento’s son.
Nascimento finds solace in the simple right-and-wrong life of BOPE, but when a prison riot quelling is bungled, he finds himself thrown into the world of politics. And it is a world far more complex and more dangerous than gunning down drug-dealers in the slums.
The Rio, and in the Brazil, of Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is a murky place. The thugs are dangerous, the corrupt cops even more so. But most deadly of all are the self-interested political elite, orchestrating everything. It is a vicious social portrayal, which makes the film’s popularity in its home territory all the more staggering.
If the subject matter seems to run counter to the movie finding a large audience, its quality does not. This is, simply put, terrific filmmaking. Director Padilha shoots his action handheld, lending an immediacy to its verite feel, most notably in a bravura central set-piece when a BOPE division invades a heavily-armed slum. The action is quick, energetic, but with a keen sense of geography that ensure the audience never loses track of who is where or doing what, no matter how frenetic things become.
But to label this a simple action movie would be doing it a huge disservice. Despite its 80s straight-to-video sounding title, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is a mature drama. It explores the grey morality of justice in a manner reminiscent of the brilliant HBO TV series The Wire, its characters flawed and even the worst of villains seem to genuinely believe their actions are for the greater good.
Expansive, thoughtful and gripping, this is how all action films should be. Fantastic.
Unfortunately, the richness of the film is not quite echoed with the extras on the disc. We get a few interviews that do not go into much detail and a few minutes of behind-the-scenes footage without narration.
DIRECTOR(S): Jose Padilha | COUNTRY: Brazil | YEAR 2010 | DISTRIBUTOR(S): Madman | RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes