Review: Cops and Criminals Overlap in Elite Squad: The Enemy Within

2007’s Elite Squad kicked things off with a bang, and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within follows suit before backtracking to explore who’s in the crosshairs, who’s behind the trigger, and how the situation between cops and criminals in Brazil became so volatile -- not that one needs to have seen the former in order to keep up with the latter.

Those who did see the first film know that Lt. Colonel Nascimento (Wagner Moura) had retired from heading up the elite police force known as B.O.P.E. This sequel sees Nascimento estranged from his wife and kid; even worse, she’s shacking up with uber-liberal Diogo Fraga (Irandhir Santos), who protests B.O.P.E.’s every move. When both men end up in the spotlight following a bloodily botched attempt to quell a prison riot, it results in a pair of unlikely political careers, with public hero Nascimento becoming sub-secretary of intelligence and newly infuriated Fraga becoming a senator.

However, as director/co-writer José Padilha expands the scope of the situation, it becomes clear that Nascimento’s targets are no longer drug dealers and slum gangs (to which he quickly puts an end), but corrupt cops and scheming politicians with whom he shares the halls of power. If Elite Squad evidently owed its hopscotch style to City of God, then the overlapping agendas and consequences of The Enemy Within are a bit more indebted to the likes of The Wire. This film operates in more of a moral gray zone than the first film’s dizzying war zone, and while it does build on its predecessor (André Ramiro reprises his role as Nascimento’s ruthless protégé), it works fairly well as a stand-alone thriller.

Part of the appeal can be chalked up to the return of Moura, a commanding leading man given a far more emotionally complex part to chew on this time (though I’m afraid that his no-duh narration still remains). Even as everyone else is rendered in the broadest strokes -- the liberals couldn’t be whinier and wimpier, while the fat cats couldn’t be fatter -- watching Moura protect his family and pummel his foes gives The Enemy Within a compelling through-line that Elite Squad never found. He’s a soldier with smarts, a bull unwittingly relocated to the government’s china shop, and as Nascimento comes to realize that his fascist tactics that seem to have won the war in both films only force criminals to adapt in more insidious ways, he capitalizes on his newfound intelligence post for all the surveillance capabilities he needs to determine how far up the corruption really goes. (If you guessed all the way to the top…)

Once firefights do break out, Padilha keeps us in the thick of the action, with a camera that’s almost too shaky (but not quite) compensated by well-established geography and motives. No one sequence is mind-searingly gangbusters, but given their effectiveness in the scheme of things, it comes as little surprise that the man has been hired to helm another tale of urban warfare and political corruption, the long-in-development remake of Robocop.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within may not be terribly original, and it may not be very subtle, but in Padilha’s hands, it throttles forward with remarkable aplomb and easily leaves the original in the dust.

Grade: B

Movie & TV Awards 2018