Film Review: Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

Hard-hitting Brazilian thriller about police corruption, politics and crime colliding in Rio&#8217;s <i>favelas </i>and corridors of power and law enforcement is as intelligent as it is entertaining. Good reviews and word of mouth should give this some

Writer-director Jose Padilha’s Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is a follow-up to the original Elite Squad, but not to worry. No previous courses are required, as this latest—Brazil’s official selection for a 2012 Oscar nom—is a sturdy standalone.

Padilha’s palpable anger at his country’s corruption simmers throughout this pummeling, action-packed journey into a government culture exploited by greedy, power-hungry insiders. The filmmaker’s command of this work, including the solid acting and authentic script and atmosphere (whether that of the prisons, precincts or slums), enhances the experience.

The story is straightforward; the key characters supply the twists. Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura), head of Rio’s BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion), has seen his share of intense situations, but a violent prison uprising at the Bangu 1 Penitentiary presents a new challenge when hostages are taken, violence erupts and deaths ensue.

The hero/martyr at Bangu is Beirada (Seu Jorge), a leader of one of the three drug cartels battling it out within prison walls. Left-wing activist Fraga (Irandhir Santos), a firebrand with burning political ambitions, seizes this opportunity to blast the Captain on TV. But the Captain’s cop pal Mathias (André Ramiro), against Nascimento’s wishes, takes the rap for the deaths. Not only is Nascimento’s job saved, but he’s promoted. A fed-up public and the media, enraged by rampant crime, change sentiment and get behind him.

But four years later, Nascimento, who had grown BOPE into a powerful law-enforcement force, realizes that the drug gangs and illegal operations are actually under the control of corrupt cops and politicos, many of whom he’s close to. Friends gravitate to where the power is and even Fraga, now a political big shot, is questionable.

Nascimento struggles to distinguish the good guys in his midst from the bad, meaning those cops and politicians in league with the mafia-like militia that rules the favela. There’s corrupt police colonel Fabio (Milhem Cortaz), a familiar uneducated wise guy who uses his street smarts to initially outfox Nascimento and get a whiff of power. His ambitious underling Russo (Sandro Rocha) is deep into the kickbacks, favoritism and assassinations that poison law enforcement, reward colluding cops and weaken the system.

Also part of the evil cabal is politico Fortunato (André Mattos), who like his cronies enjoys a life of pleasure. Even old pal Mathias may be lost to these corrupt powers. The damage even reaches Nascimento’s teen son Rafa (Pedro Van Held), who goes to work for Fraga. A bum rap for weed possession and a bullet bring grief to both Rafa and his good-cop father.
Now in government hands, crime in the favela intensifies, but Fraga’s journalist friend Clara (Tainá Müller), nosing around in the slum, has found incriminating evidence. A huge shootout ensues, lives are lost, and her evidence may reach the wrong people.

Elite Squad embeds a somewhat forced melodramatic story thread involving Nascimento’s broken marriage and relationship with his son. But overall, the film, with its high-octane doc look and pacing, supports its reputation as South America’s all-time grosser (even surpassing Avatar) that boasts elements recalling The Departed, City of God and TV series “The Wire.”