Propulsive, hyper-violent and ridiculously exciting, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within can be described as The Wire transplanted to Rio de Janeiro – a top-to-bottom panorama of corruption and crime, from the city’s favelas to its highest offices of government. As in the monumental HBO series, wire-tapping and surveillance are critical plot elements. But in this stand-alone sequel to 2007’s Elite Squad, director José Padilha (Bus 174) doesn’t stray far from the brutal action and gunplay that helped make the original a box office smash.
The Enemy Within was an even bigger hit — it is the highest-grossing film in Brazil’s history and that country’s entry into this year’s Foreign Language Oscar race — in part because Padilha and co-writer Braulio Mantovani (City of God) are actively playing to their audience. Lt. Colonel Nascimento (Wagner Moura), who previously waged a near-fascist war against drug dealers as head of Rio’s special-military police, is promoted to Secretary of Intelligence. At his new post, Nascimiento encounters criminals far scarier than gun-toting hoods: Corrupt policemen who execute informants and witnesses in broad daylight; politicians who abuse their power to guarantee their re-election; and a TV news media that patronizes public opinion for ratings instead of challenging it.
There is a deep sense of indignation at the core of The Enemy Within, a righteous fury that pelts every cog of “the system” like machine-gun fire. Padilha wants to rile you up and make you seethe over sights other movies might have used for shock effect: The horrific murder of an inmate during a prison riot; a hired killer pulling the teeth from the charred skull of his latest victim; the cowardly, ignominious murder of a major character. Whereas Nascimiento once favored fighting violence with even greater violence, the battle he must wage in The Enemy Within requires a lot more finesse than a well-stocked arsenal. Over the course of the movie, he and his arch-enemy Diogo Fraga (Irandhir Santos), a human rights activist who constantly decries police brutality, eventually find themselves on the same side.
Padilha, who landed the gig of directing the upcoming reboot of Robocop on the strength of this film, knows how to orchestrate elaborate action sequences, including a near-surreal aerial attack by police helicopters on drug dens (apocalypse now, indeed.) Like Michael Mann, Padilha also relishes the tactile aspects of gunfights and car chases and bullets plowing into metal. The movie is saddled with an incessant, utterly superfluous voiceover narration that exists only to keep summarizing the plot and state the stunningly obvious (e.g. “Rio’s public security was in the hands of crooks” or “Politicians only care about the media .”) Elite Squad: The Enemy Within would have been a better, more subtle movie without it. The ending also feels more than a little convenient; the film loses its merciless nerve at the last moment. But a less-accessible Elite Squad might not have reached as many people, and for all his social concerns, Padilha is first and foremost an entertainer. His take on cops-and-robbers just happens to pack the punch of a bazooka.
Cast: Wagner Moura, Irandhir Santos, Andre Ramiro, Milhem Cortaz.
Director: José Padilha.
Screenwriters: José Padilha, Braulio Mantovani.
Producers: José Padilha, Marcos Prado.
A Variance Films release. Running time: 118 minutes. In Portuguese with English subtitles. Vulgar language, graphic violence, gore, strong adult themes. Opens Friday Dec. 2 in Miami-Dade only: Paragon Grove.