“Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” is a direct sequel to the original “Elite Squad,” which was a smart, byzantine thriller largely defined by its bright bursts of color and raw, unhinged momentum that Paul Greengrass would have probably defined as “a little intense.” The original film followed Captain Roberto Nascimento (Wagner Moura, his jaw as sharp as an axe blade), a member of the elite tactical unit BOPE – kind of Rio de Janeiro’s more militarized version of the SWAT team, and the only police group that the bad guys knew not to fuck with. While there were tangled threads of plot in the first film involving police corruption, raids on dangerous slums, and drug dealers’ involvement in non-profit student groups, it chiefly focused on Nascimento training and implementing a worthy successor to his position. With a baby on the way, he wanted out. And he found the perfect person in Andre Matias (Andre Ramiro), a ramrod straight arrow who would resist corruption and ferret out criminal activity wherever it lay.
So it’s with a heavy heart that the movie opens and you realize that Captain Nascimento, now Lieutenant Colonel Nascimento, is still in BOPE, which has become even more hard edged in the decade (and more) that has passed in between films. Moura is more gaunt and even more rigid, his hair streaked with gray and his eyes wary and probing. After a botched response to a prison riot (led, somewhat amusingly, by Seu Jorge, the Portuguese singer and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” actor), Nascimento is elevated to a position within the system where he can build up BOPE while also probing internally – the enemy within, as it were. Matias is still on the force too, promoted to Officer Cadet, but when he’s also involved in the prison riot, he’s bumped down to a regular police officer – gone is the black uniform embellished by the BOPE logo consisting of a sneering skull backed by two lightning bolts.
Minor characters are elevated in ‘The Enemy Within’ as power positions shift and mutate under Nascimento’s new initiative, driving the drug dealers out of business but causing the bad guys to find new things to rob and abuse (like guns). It also causes shifts up the chain of command, as dishonest cops now have to deal with less income, since the thieves and dealers they were shaking down no longer have the same cash. (Anyone who saw the recent Ken Burns documentary “Prohibition” knows that a calculated response to vice can have unfathomably far reaching consequences.) Characters with bit roles in the first film, like Rocha (Sandro Rocha) become primetime players in the sequel, and it’s interesting to see which characters the filmmakers focus on and why.
The central conspiracy in “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” is more focused and somewhat less involving, although there’s a certain emotional component to the narrative that was missing in the first film, mostly because Nascimento’s ex-wife and child are involved. (She has married a left leaning congressman and professor who finds himself in the very literal crosshairs of the conspiracy.) Like “The Wire,” it seems to be tackling a specific subject matter in each movie, and it’s admirable that much of the film stays out of the nitty gritty of the streets, instead focusing on how Nascimento is watching both sides of the fight, even as things he implemented for good, like everything else in Rio, becomes corrupted and dirty.
Director/co-writer Jose Padiha, who has already been tapped to reboot “RoboCop” (a job one held by Darren Aronofsky), brings the same level of breathless energy that he exhibited in the first film, to the sequel. Things always seem to be moving, and even in quieter moments, like a ranting politician on a Bill O’Reilly-style television show, the air seems to hum with electricity. His camera never stays still, almost always at the same eye level as the characters, so we tense up as they round that dingy narrow alleyway and brace ourselves as bullets rocket in our direction. Padiha has added some stylistic flourishes into the mix too, like an opening scene where Nascimento’s tiny car is shredded with ammo, the camera slowing down to lend the moment the air of operatic grandeur as we watch the rounds as they tear apart the vehicle. Unlike the stylized violence of American action movies, though, you really feel every shot, and the brutality has real consequences and feels appropriately grave; it stings. The film chose to wisely expand its scope while also zeroing in on our hero and his family, so that the threat is real, palpable and personal.
But “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” aims to be more than just some action movie, even if it is an action movie with a potential Best Foreign Language Feature nomination pedigree. It looks to be about what causes the violence and unrest in these communities – the power of the people pulling the strings and the unending cycle of corruption that, as the movie comes to a close, keeps on chugging. On this front, ‘The Enemy Within’ mostly succeeds. Like the first film, kneejerk criticism will pour in that the film is championing a response to crime that borders on fascism, but that really isn’t the case. Though putting on dazzling display of technical proficiency, the movie’s heart is as big as an armored truck. [B+]