fri 19/04/2019

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within | reviews, news & interviews

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

From Brazil, the most politically engaged and best action film this year

Where the nuts come from: 'Elite Squad: The Enemy Within'

This is ferocious popular cinema. The original Elite Squad (2007) was an iconic hit in Brazil, detailing the training, private lives and bloody ghetto raids of BOPE, the black-suited elite Rio police force led by charismatic Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura). Director José Padilha resisted offers to convert the film’s commercial clout into a TV franchise, instead expanding this sequel into a total indictment of Brazilian society. Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is the most politically and socially engaged, best action film this year.

Sweaty energy and ruthless narrative momentum grip from the start. Nascimento is stalked by undercover police and apparently shot to pieces, then we flashback to a savage prison riot, put down by BOPE under (now) Colonel Nascimento’s command with equal ruthlessness. As narrator of both films, Nascimento has Harry Callahan-style contempt for the film-makers’ liberal values, embodied in charismatic civil rights campaigner Fraga (Irandhir Santos, pictured below). Domestic conflict makes these two moral poles of the film more intimately hostile, as Fraga is married to Nascimento’s wife from the first film, Rosane (Maria Ribeiro), and a rival father figure to his teenage son. This leads to Latin telenovela soap-operatics, but also nerve-ending ties between the personal, political and policing. “Pressure builds at home?” Nascimento explains. “I release it in the streets.”

 The disastrous aftermath of the prison riot makes Nascimento a popular hero and liberal demon, forcing Rio’s ruling politicians to kick him upstairs into an administrative post. This allows a panoramic overview of what Nascimento contemptuously calls “the System”, only glimpsed at the edges of the more conventional first film. His crude new policy to brutally suppress the drug trade in the favelas (ghettos), intended to deprive dirty cops of their pay-offs and so make the System’s corruption wither, instead reveals that corruption’s cancerous totality. Police militias simply replace the drug lords in skimming from the whole ghetto economy, turning everything from cable TV to votes into a cop-run, ultra-violent protection racket. The state’s political class is delighted, the System now operating with still slicker efficiency to the benefit of everyone except the favelas’ inhabitants. Nascimento’s policeman’s outrage gives him unlikely common cause with Fraga’s liberal dismay, but the sheer scale of Brazil’s civic rot makes this a conspiracy thriller in which the conspiracy being fought is infinite and endemic. It’s like Dirty Harry deciding to take on Richard Nixon.

EliteSquad2bEditor Daniel Ezende has helped Padilha make a film whose two hours feel muscularly fast, even as each scene in its intricate mosaic is given human space to breathe. The uniformly superb lead actors’ intense nervous energy is ratcheted up by hand-held filming. Wagner Moura, whose original performance as Nascimento made him a Brazilian icon, has a pretty face darkened by a quiet, constant edge of unhappiness and violence. Irandhir Santos’s Fraga could have stepped from a crusading Sidney Lumet film of the 1970s. And around them strut Dickensian grotesques like Fortunato, the fat, blustering politician and TV demagogue who prefers to be called “Godfather”.

Hollywood smuggled sometimes radical political content into many of its best action films of the Nineties - Australian director Philip Noyce’s Harrison Ford-starring Clear and Present Danger (1994), for instance, turned a Tom Clancy CIA yarn into an indictment of George W Bush’s War on Drugs. That hasn’t happened much lately, and Padilha’s exponential increase in sophistication and scope since Elite Squad has more in common with Scorsese’s Casino (1995), which went beyond even his own gangster epics to turn a sociological eye on the Vegas Mob, showing its workings from top to bottom. More particularly, Padilha is returning to the moral imperatives of his great breakthrough documentary Bus 174 (2002), an examination of a favela man who took a bus’s passengers hostage and the catastrophic state response. Like Elite Squad it was a great popular hit in Brazil, where 10 million cinema-goers have already rushed to see The Enemy Within. The final scenes, taking Nascimento and Padilha’s j’accuse to the country’s capital Brasilia, boldly indict its current rulers in the carnage we’ve just witnessed. “How do you think they paid for all of this?” Nascimento’s narration wonders, as the camera pans over vast antiseptic tracts of politicians’ real estate. “No wonder slums exist.” The mass audience Padilha’s skill has mobilised clearly recognise the crime he’s reporting. 

Watch the trailer to Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

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Comments

Nice review - it's surprising how many critics have just deemed it a stupid action movie of no real political note, so nice to read a review that understands the film's intentions. One thing though, be careful with the spelling of the director's name, it's José Padilha - not Padhila.

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