Though many American critics thought otherwise, José Padilha’s 2007 shoot-em-up “Elite Squad” was among the top action movies of the past decade, a relentless and thoroughly immersive look at the brutal street tactics of Rio de Janeiro’s Special Police Operations Battalion, aka BOPE. Those perturbed by Padilha’s portrayal of BOPE’s mercilessly violent approach to combating the local drug trade missed its skillful blend of harsh naturalism and social commentary.
In Brazil, “Elite Squad” and its sequel have become blockbusters for good reason: Padilha channeled national frustrations into zeitgeist entertainment. The follow-up, “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within,” has less success than the first installment in achieving that aim, but still keeps the snazzy combination of spectacle and polemics in check.
While it opens in North America this week, “The Enemy Within” has grossed close to $63 million at the Brazilian box office, shattering records with nearly six times the cumulative take of the first installment. The franchise caught Hollywood’s attention, leading to Padilha’s current gig as the director of Sony’s upcoming “Robocop” remake, a job that initially went to Darren Aronofsky. He might have tapped into the body horror associated with Paul Verhoeven’s subversive hit, but Padilha is well positioned to explore the totalitarian near-future police state that the cyborg represents.
If nothing else, “The Enemy Within” continues to explore the furthest extremes of law enforcement in a society on the brink of lawlessness. These cops don’t have superhuman abilities, but they often act like they do. The first movie explored the extensive training process for new BOPE recruits overseen by Capt. Nascimento (Wagner Moura) — a frenetic combination of physical abuse and degradation intended to create hardened killing machines. As Padilha depicts it, BOPE agents routinely use suffocation as an interrogation method and fire at will when dealers enter their crosshairs, replacing the need for judge or jury with the finality of a bullet.
“The Enemy Within” functions as Padilha’s “The Godfather, Part II” in that it builds on the world introduced in the first movie with the maturation of its leading man. Padilha provides a deeper look at Brazilian crime industry from Nascimento’s perspective. When the BOPE head is promoted to the role of Sub-Secretary of Intelligence, he’s even closer to a web of internal corruption. Labeled a national hero after his role in ending a prison riot, Nascimento infiltrates the governor’s inner circle and gets a crash course in institutional control, facing a divide between professional responsibility and his personal moral code.
Among his discoveries: Cops steal weapons for their own underground trade and take cues from criminals holding court in public office. This causes Nascimento to question his allegiances, especially as he must cope with the impact of his public reputation on his rebellious adolescent son and an estranged wife. Finally, when the system fails him, Nascimento goes rogue.
Padilha’s career is fairly unique in that he oscillates between large-scale action pictures and more conventional documentary projects, including “Secrets of the Tribe” and the acclaimed “Bus 174,” a tragic hostage tale that deals with the same issues of police ineptitude at the center of the “Elite Squad” saga. Beyond the subject matter linking his fiction and non-fiction work, Padilha uses a documentary technique to frame his action. His handheld camera moves fast and gets uncomfortably close, creating a viscerally engaging experience rooted in urban realism.
“This may sound like a Hollywood cliché,” Nascimento says in a voiceover at the beginning of “The Enemy Within” while dodging a hail of bullets. At first, Padilha positions Nascimento and his top trainee (André Ramiro) as two good guys in a sea of self-interests, but that angle dissipates in the face of too many vast conspiratorial forces in play. Instead, “The Enemy Within” devolves into a series of brash confrontations at the expense of emotional clarity. The death of a major character comes as a cruel surprise and registers cheaply, just like Nascimento’s on-the-nose voiceover.
Over the course of “The Enemy Within,” Nascimento makes the implausible transformation from homicidal avenger to social activist, turning against everything that seemed to define him in the first movie. No longer a being of free will, he’s entirely behold to Padilha’s agenda. In other words, the director has already made his “Robocop.”
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? While Variance Films can’t possibly propel “The Enemy Within” to the kind of massive commercial hit it has already become in its native country, the movie stands to do solid business in limited release, further setting the stage for Padilha’s first American movie.