Based on having not seen its predecessor, I walked into Jose Padilha’s Elite Squad: The Enemy Within with the expectation that I’d be completely lost and the hope that I’d be completely entertained. One of those two came to fruition. Needless to say, the film stands apart from 2008’s Elite Squad, carrying over (based on what I’m told) only themes and energy. Having experienced round two, I can only expect to find the original to be an entertaining ride. That is, if it’s anything like The Enemy Within, it’s probably one hell of a movie.
From moment one, Enemy Within presents us with a challenge: I’m going to move at a frantic, breakneck pace, says director Padilha in a not-so-subtle way, and you will be required to keep pace. Your reward is plenty of explosive action, webs of corruption and a hero you’re going to absolutely love.
The hero is Col. Nascimento of BOPE, Brazil’s elite military police force. We meet him as our narrator, explaining the events that will define the 4-year span of the film’s story. It begins with a police raid on Rio de Janeiro’s most volatile prison, where inmates have rioted and begun executing rival gangs. Caught in between a human rights activist and his intensively trained responses, one of Col. Nascimento’s men executes one of the inmates before the situation could be extinguished, leading to a media frenzy that would change the lives of all involved. The activist would become a loud-mouthed congressman, the cop would find himself out of BOPE and Nascimento would find himself promoted, a hero to the crime afflicted people of Rio. Installed as an undersecretary of Security, Nascimento watches as corrupt officials slowly transform Rio’s drug-infested Western district into a deceptively peaceful breeding ground for organized crime and extortion. Those who held all the power, he sees, were the worst criminals all along.
If it wasn’t for the magnetic presence of Wagner Moura as Nascimento, this would be the boring part. We watch as four years of militia takeovers drown the city in corruption. But we also witness the human element of Nascimento’s world. That loud-mouthed human rights legislator just so happens to be the guy putting the screws to his ex-wife and putting his liberal ideals into the head of his son. Needless to say, this strains the relationship between the hard-lined right wing cop and his offspring, leading to Nascimento further burying himself in his quest to find the source of Rio’s corruption. His character journey is deeply fascinating. Where narration usually hampers a film, delivering far too much unnecessary exposition, Padilha uses it to give further depth to Nascimento’s character. Instead of explaining things to an audience, he feels like he’s writing a letter to a friend. And that bit of personality makes all the difference.
Refreshing is the appropriate way to describe such exposition delivery, especially in a film that will ultimately be known for its blistering action. The story serves to bring weight to the action, while the action serves to propel the story. It smacks of expertise on the part of an action director, proving Padilha to be a bullet-spraying auteur well beyond his years. All throughout the film, while experiencing the socio-political themes weaved expertly through the narrative, the balls-to-the-wall spurts of action and even some playfulness with some of the story’s more absurd characters (namely a grande political personality whose TV show is way over the top), I couldn’t help but think, “Yeah, I could see this guy making a really cool Robocop movie.” He’s got ambition to create a film that has balance between being an arty message drama and an all-out entertaining action brawl. And while The Enemy Within sometimes shifts awkwardly between the two, Padilha finds enough glue — again, mostly in the performances — to keep it together and make for a wicked fun ride. The story is expansive and intriguing, the action does not disappoint and it’s not hard to see why this is the most financially successful film in Brazil’s history. Because when it comes down to it, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
The Upside: Big action, strong performances all around and an ambitious story told through the eyes of a great archetypal hero.
The Downside: With such an ambitious story comes some awkward structural issues and a few lapses in an otherwise high-energy affair. Not to worry, though, as the dull moments are few and far between.