Fantastic Fest 2011: ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN Review
[With Elite Squad: The Enemy Within now screening at Fantastic Fest it seems time to revisit Ryland Aldrich's earlier review.]
Jose Padilha's 2007 hit Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite) turned heads by winning the Golden Bear at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival - a rare feat for an action film (Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line in 1999 possibly the only other). Coming from a documentary background (Bus 174), Padilha infused his high intensity action with a ripped-from-the-headlines story of police corruption and conspiracy. Padilha stays very true to the original in his follow-up Elite Squad 2 (subtitled in Brazil as The Enemy Within). Delving even deeper into the politics of corruption, this excellently written and executed actioner pulls the covers back on the militias that control elections in Rio's favelas, the whole time keeping all guns blazing.
Elite Squad 2 gets off to a rollicking start with a huge action sequence set in a recreation of Brazil's infamous Bangu 1 prison. Colonel Nascimento (Wagner Moura) is again at the center of things, leading his squadron of elite BOPE cops. But these are politically charged times and after a controversial conclusion to the prison raid, Nascimento is removed from his BOPE position and promoted to Sub-Secretary of Intelligence. Trading fatigues for a suit and tie doesn't come naturally to Nascimento, but he sees it as an opportunity to challenge the system of corruption between the cops on the ground and the drug lords. Flash forward the better part of a decade and Nascimento has succeeded in removing the drug lords, however militias of police have risen up to control the drug trade. The difference between the drug lords and the militia leaders is the militias are backed by corrupt politicians with a trail all the way up to the governor's office. Nascimento does his best to keep his head down, but when his family is threatened, he decides it's time to use his talents to shut down the militias, even if it puts him squarely in the big guns' crosshairs.
It comes as a shock to learn that the production budget for the film was under $9M USD - a full 15% of that going to building the Bangu 1 set. Helicopters roar over the favelas and guns blaze through city streets in a film that has all the polish of a Hollywood blockbuster. Scores of police from all over the country came to Rio to play extras in the film and their real life expertise boosts the film's realism. Add to that more stunning 35mm cinematography from Lula Carvalho and you have a film that is close to technically flawless.
Braulio Mantovani's intricate screenplay is another real accomplishment. No surprise, as the writer of City of God was also brought in during the editing process of Elite Squad and was responsible for shifting the focus of the first film to center on the compelling character of Nascimento. Here Mantovani is tasked with balancing a very complex corruption plot with the personal story of Nascimento's family, all the while working in the large action set pieces that fans of the franchise demand. While it feels like there is a bit more chit chat in the sequel than in the original, it is all in service of the very well developed plot and doesn't detract from the overall experience.
Fans of action blockbusters and political thrillers will find a lot to like in this very well crafted film. Released in Brazil last October, it is no shock that it has set every box office record in that country, surpassing Avatar for the top spot. With only 5 foreign language features ever topping $25M in the US, Elite Squad 2 has some chips stacked against it here. Although it still lacks domestic distribution in the US (it was self distributed in Brazil by Padilha and producer Marcos Prado, backed by Globo Filmes), with the support of a strong US studio, it isn't hard to imagine this film gaining momentum and finding a very appreciative audience. (Updated distribution news here.)