MacGuffin Film Review – Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

Film Review – Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

Elite Squad - The Enemy Within PosterI’m so liberal I think the Democrats are fascists. Therefore, one might be led to believe that I would not like a movie that would even suggest that the right thing to do with out-of-control drug dealers would be to torture them for information and then shoot them in the head. You could not be more wrong. While that is not the whole plotline of Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, it surely does happen once or twice, and I could not be happier about it. This film is Brazil’s entry into the 2012 Academy Awards and it is an amazing movie. It’s brutal, it poses a lot of questions that it can’t answer, and it proceeds at a breakneck speed to a conclusion that is somewhat anti-climactic, but it kicks butt all the way.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is a sequel to the 2007 film Elite Squad (both directed by José Padilha), about Captain Nascimento and his experience in the Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (BOPE), the Special Police Operations Battalion of the Rio de Janeiro Military Police. They are the badasses of Rio and their insignia is a skull. In no way do you have to have seen the first film to understand this one; I had not and was able to catch up with no problems. The film is narrated by Nascimento (Wagner Moura) and in this case, I believe the narration works just fine. I’m kind of iffy on narration, because most of the time there is no point. The most egregious example of it is in Stand By Me, where the narration not only tells the audience what is happening, which they can see with their eyes, but it also explains the emotional impact of the events, which of course the audience never could have figured out on their own. In this case, the narration works because Nascimento is filling in the gaps by telling us things that we don’t know, giving us more information to work with.

The film starts out in a prison, with each inmate section controlled by a different cartel. One of the cartel leaders has gotten his hands on some weapons and is executing the other leaders and many of their men. Nascimento and the BOPE are brought in to quell the riot, and his idea is to let the prisoners kill as many of each other as they can, the police will go in clean up what’s left, and a lot of drug dealers will be off the streets for good. Unfortunately, the cartel leader with the gun decides to call in human rights advocate Diogo Fraga (Irandhir Santos), who is allowed in and tries to negotiate a peaceful end to hostilities. Nascimento and Frago hate each other: one will kill whomever it takes to make cartel-ridden Rio a safer place to live, and the other believes the BOPE is just as thuggish as the cartels. They are further tied together by the fact that Frago is married to Nascimento’s ex-wife and is stepfather to his son. Frago ends up with a gun to his head, and things end up not going in the direction he would like. This leads him to throw Nascimento to the wolves in the press, which backfires a little, because instead of getting fired, Nascimento gets promoted up to be head of wiretapping.

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Aside from getting to wiretap anybody he wants—which he does—Nascimento is now able to position BOPE better to take down the cartels. Just like the prisons, every neighborhood in Rio is ruled by a different cartel. Drug dealers roam the streets with automatic weapons and extreme violence is an everyday fact for the majority of citizens. Neighborhood by neighborhood, Nascimento sends his men in to do whatever it takes to prevent there being any drug profits. The problem is, once the cartels move out, corrupt cops move in. Instead of just focusing on drug money, they take a piece of all the action: whatever is being sold in Rio, they want a cut. And the corruption may go straight up the chain of command. Nascimento’s battle is no longer with the criminal element; he must engage with those who are supposed to have his back.

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I went in to this movie with no preconceptions and then spent the first ten minutes questioning if I had enough testosterone to get through the thing. The credits are like a Cops montage with pounding music and quick cuts. And then, while Nascimento is telling the audience what he would like to do with the criminals, I was kind of wondering if this was going to end up a love letter to fascism (which might be good for controlling crime, but is not so great for everyone else). It’s not. Nascimento and Frago dance around each other during the entire movie, each man trying to solve the same problems through completely different means. How does one create a cartel-and-corruption-free city: through violence or a focus on the roots of poverty? It is through their relationship that the film tries to answer these questions. Nascimento’s violence is somewhat glorified, but Fraga is never made to appear the fool. There is a reason why this film has broken attendance and money records in Brazil; it’s as though they took a really good action film, pumped it up to eleven, and then added a good dose of social commentary regarding something that everyone in society is talking about.  In this case, all of the components work well together, although the film is not perfect. It is hyper-violent and Nascimento could really use a little ethics training. In the end, however, it not only made me question my liberal assumptions of what the appropriate response to out-of-control violence might be, but also reaffirmed that there is room for my beliefs in a possible solution.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within opens at SIFF Cinema at the Uptown in Seattle today.

Final Grade: A-

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