Elite Squad: The Enemy Within – Review



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Brazilian release shows crime and corruption with gunplay, wiretaps

A day after watching Elite Squad: The Enemy Within a story popped up online about the more than three thousand police and soldiers that went into Brazil’s largest slum, Rochinha, and gained control of a shantytown that had been ruled for decades by a heavily armed drug gang. It was part of a pacification campaign to drive drug traffickers out of the slums. When the article included a passage about Huey helicopters hovering over the slum, radioing to police suspects who had fled, it only helped bolster my appreciation of José Padilha’s based-on-real-events sequel to his 2007 release, Elite Squad.

Though this is a sequel, you won’t feel lost if you haven’t watched the former. At the start, Lt. Colonel Nascimento (Wagner Moura) is recruited back to head the state police militia (known as the BOPE). When a bloody prison riot sees bad guys slain behind bars, Nascimento is rewarded, not punished, when a drug lord surrenders only to be shot to death by the top militia officer under his command. Labeled a hero by the news media, including Brazil’s version of Glen Beck, he is soon promoted to the position of Sub-Secretary of Intelligence. It’s a desk job, but one where he is in charge of the wiretap program.

Nascimento is put into a situation where he must adhere to his own moral code or maintain professionalism. There are times when you think of him as Gary Cooper in High Noon, seemingly one guy up against all the badness that exists on the streets of Rio. As the BOPE works to rid the slums of the cartels, dirty cops and corrupt politicians come in to leech money from the impoverished with no recourse.

While the rich exploit the poor, both monetarily and psychically, Nascimento has his own personal dilemma. Namely, his ex-wife (Maria Ribeiro) being remarried to human rights activist Fraga (Irandhir Santos) and the leftist ideas he instills to his teenage son. At one point his son asks him, “Why do you kill people?” The question has far lingering implications, helping to underpin a story built on crime and corruption with emotional support to back it up.

Uplifted by strong editing and cinematography, José Padilha’s Elite Squad: The Enemy Within strikes the right balance of gritty realism. This should comes as no surprise to those familiar with his debut film, the 2002 documentary Bus 174. That film examined the reactions from multiple parties (including members of Rio’s BOPE police team) on a hostage event that took place on a bus after a botched robbery.

Still, some have likened his latest release to the films of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. Elite Squad has also drawn comparisons to the revered television series The Wire. The subplot involving wiretaps makes it an easy association, but José Padilha’s film isn’t quite on par with The Godfather. A better likeness would be the works of Sidney Lumet, specifically Serpico and Prince of the City, both of which deal with police corruption in the Big Apple.

Also, Nascimento’s long-winded narration is essential to explain the corruption in rich detail but is also a distraction at times. Narration in film works in the right context, however here it comes across as a necessary evil. Worth commending, though, are some of the action sequences. In one scene, Nasicmento finds himself in his vehicle taking fire. Quick to react, he doesn’t look to waste his ammunition as if he has an endless supply of clips out of frame. He takes the time to compose a shot to make sure it hits the target intended. And the BOPE raid on the slum with aerial coverage of the helicopters surveying the tops of the shanties is also of note. All that was missing was Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is an enjoyable crime drama that reaches for greatness but comes up a little short. Had Padilha and his screenwriting partner Braulio Mantovani, who also wrote City of God, given supporting characters better personalities (or any personality for that matter), it may have made for a more enriching crime saga. Nevertheless, the direction was strong enough to warrant Padilha’s hiring on MGM’s planned RoboCop reboot. Remake of not, the story and action should be in good hands.


Director: José Padilha
Notable Cast: Wagner Moura, Irandhir Santos, André Ramiro, Milhem Cortaz, André Mattos, Maria Ribeiro
Writer(s): José Padilha and Bráulio Mantovani

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