Blu-ray Reviews: ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN & URBANIZED

J Hurtado, Contributing Writer
A few days ago I received a package from New Video, a film distributor that handles a ton of different labels in the US. This particular package had one film on Blu-ray that I had requested for review, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, and one with which I was completely unfamiliar, Urbanized. I had seen Elite Squad at Fantastic Fest last fall and was excited to revisit it on home video. Urbanized, I noticed, was by the gentleman who directed Helvetica, and the similarly design-themed Objectified, so I was marginally interested. I decided to give both of them a go, and it was only about halfway through Urbanized that I began to see the connections.

The subject of Urbanized is urban planning and design. The idea that every place in which people congregate, live, shop, commute, and entertain ourselves is the result of a conscious design is not something that most people consider on a day to day basis.  However, this design creates and destroys communities, it is largely responsible for the character of a neighborhood. Poor urban design can lead to isolation, lack of interaction, crime, poverty, desolation, gentrification, congestion, even disease, and death.  Good urban design leads to vital communities, economic booms, freedom, confidence, and a feeling of safety.

There are a number of talking heads involved in Urbanized, too many to recall. Among them are top civic engineers, urban designers, mayors of large urban areas, and architects, all of whom have very definite ideas about what makes for good and poor design.  They don't always agree, there is no such thing as one ideal design plan, if there were, we would probably have hit on it by now and the world would be a happier place.  However, depending upon whose concerns you favor, design can be tragic or triumphant.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within
tackles the monumental issues of corruption and crime in Rio de Janeiro. Rio is not only one of the largest cities in the world, it is also home to one of the largest systems of slums in any major metropolitan area, the favelas. These areas are rife with crime, poverty, drugs, violence, and all of the things that you don't want in your neighborhood. They are densely packed, often poorly constructed, and nearly impenetrable by anyone or group who might want to protect them. This helps to exacerbate the problems of the favelas, a place that lacks any kind of formal civic design of any kind.

urbanizedblu.jpgThe isolation of the favelas and lack of connection to the world outside helps to create a boiling cauldron of vice that never ends. In Urbanized, the commentators touch on several such slums, including one in Johannesburg, South Africa which has been the benefactor of conscientious urban design that has changed the community with relatively little capital investment. Are the people still poor?  Yes, they are. The environment in which they live has changed in such a way that they are no longer sitting ducks for crime, which livens up the community and encourages investment.

Urbanized actually takes a look at a few different South American cities, and ways in which urban design has helped those places feel more like cohesive groups of people. Rio is not one of those examples. In Elite Squad, even the military police have a hard time penetrating the filth that the favelas have become, staging their assaults from helicopters and in armored transports. They treat parts of their own city as enemy territory, and with good reason. There is no community to speak of, the people are bound together by their fear and dependence on the gangsters who allow them to live another day.

In this way, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is a clear call to arms for the people of Brazil to find a better way. By all accounts, the blatant actions of the police in the film are not far from the actions of authorities in real life. Director Jose Padilha is a man without fear, and a man with three brilliant films under his belt. His straight-on attacks on corruption in Brazilian society have mobilized people at least to get to the theaters and support his own work, and hopefully, by extension, confront the issues in their own communities.  Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is the highest grossing film in Brazilian history, which, at the very least, serves to indicate that the issues raised strike a chord with the Brazilian people.

The film is a masterpiece. I try not to throw that word around, but I also endeavor not to review movies that I think will be shit.  My time is valuable, and for the entire two hours in which I was engaged with Padilha's story, I felt justified. The story is engaging, the characters are real with flaws and strengths that remind me of people I know, and the action is intense.

Urbanized is certainly no match for Elite Squad in the excitement department, but for the thinking man, there is much to be gained. Surely a documentary about urban design isn't for everyone, but I think that for those to whom it sounds even remotely interesting, it is easily recommendable.  Both films are stellar, and make for an effective double feature.

The Discs:

Both discs look fantastic. I had prior experience with Elite Squad on the big screen, and this Blu-ray looked pretty damned good. The film was shot digitally, so there are thankfully no transfer issues. The contrast is pretty intense, but I believe that to be an artistic choice. The details and colors are equally outlandish, but again, it fits the film. Urbanized is mostly told through static photography and talking heads, so there isn't much to be disappointed in. The HD image looks nice and clean, and I'm satisfied that it looks as it should. 

The audio on Elite Squad is incredible. There are numerous action sequences in which the camera, and therefore the viewer, is thrust into the middle of the action. These sequences are magical with surround sound, and may have you ducking your head to dodge that last bullet more than once. The gunfire doesn't sound like your typical Hollywood gunfire, it sounds like real gunfire, which seems like a small thing, but is remarkably effective in context. Urbanized has people talking. I can understand them. The audio is fine.

Each disc houses one extended extra feature, and both are enlightening. The Making of Elite Squad is an hour long behind the scenes look at the film from all angles. There are interviews with Padilha, his actors, his crew, his editor, his writer, and everyone else closely involved with the production. The most interesting  but of this featurette is the making of the opening prison raid, which was apparently shot pretty much in real time with 20 or 30 cameras on set and monitors set up to show the lead actor all of the action in real time. Quite an impressive feat, and something that no Hollywood studio would EVER greenlight.  Urbanized collects an additional hour of interviews and footage that expand upon their ideas and give further detail into some other areas, including footage of the destruction of the final tower at Chicago's infamous Cabrini Green housing project. Honestly, it looks pretty much the same as the material in the film, and I'd hate to have been the editor on that, because as interesting as it is most of the time, it can get monotonous really quickly.

I highly recommend both of these discs. The features are both fascinating, and the quality of the Blu-ray presentations is very solid. Definitely grab Elite Squad, and if you've got a minute, check out Urbanized, too.
Elite Squad Special Features:
- Hour-long making of featurette

Urbanized Special Features:
- Hour long series of outtakes, extra interviews, and b-roll footage
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