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Elite Squad: The Enemy Within – Film Review

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Elite Squad - Wagner Moura
Special Police Operations Battalion Captain Roberto Nascimento (Wagner Moura) confronts a Rio de Janeiro hostage crisis that ends in disaster © 2011 Variance Films

This Brazil-made sequel to 2007’s Elite Squad was such a massive hit there that it became the country’s highest grossing film ever. In Portuguese with English subtitles, this dark suspense thriller about corruption in high and low places will appeal to crime drama fans wherever there are bad cops and dirty politicians — which doesn’t leave out too many locales.

Wagner Moura returns as Roberto Nascimento, head of Rio de Janeiro’s SWAT-style Special Police Operations Battalion (abbreviated BOPE in the film). Although he often appears quietly resolute, professional and thoughtful onscreen, his voiceover narration drips with disdain for “scumbag” criminals and those he regards as their enablers in government, the media and academia. Falling in the last category is history teacher and anti-BOPE human rights activist Diogo Fraga (Irandhir Santos), who happens to be married to Nascimento’s ex-wife and who is raising Nascimento’s son.

While Fraga is railing against BOPE abuses in a lecture hall (“Isn’t it strange, a police force that has a skull for a logo?”), Nascimento is attempting to put down a violent prison revolt led by a hostage taker who demands Fraga’s presence as a negotiator. Fraga arrives and appears to be making headway when Nascimento’s rigidly rank-and-file right-hand man André Mathias (André Ramiro) sees the opportunity to take a shot, killing the inmate Fraga was talking down.

Elite Squad - Tainá Müller
Investigative journalist Clara (Tainá Müller) gets too close to a very dangerous story © 2011 Variance Films

This sets in motion a series of events that drive Nascimento and Fraga farther apart even while both are working toward the same goal of cleaning up the city. Nascimento is shifted to a glorified desk job in the intelligence division, Mathias is removed from the “elite squad” and demoted to the regular police force, and Fraga runs for a seat in the legislature.

Those interlocking settings feature fascinatingly nasty supporting characters. Police Captain Rocha (Sandro Rocha) is the most chilling, an intimidating thug who massacres drug lords in order to set up his own organized crime rackets in their former neighborhoods.

On the side of good, drop-dead gorgeous journalist Clara (Tainá Müller) is so ambitiously fearless she takes Lois Lane-level risks in order to expose how a lawless system manages to get even worse after the police appear to have won. Equally beautiful is the film’s exotic Rio setting, especially during gun battles that take place in the world’s most photogenic slums.

The film begins with a hospital scene from near the story’s end and is told almost entirely in flashback, a plot structure that nearly always is annoying. Aside from that minor flaw, the screenplay (cowritten by director José Padilha and Bráulio Mantovani, both reprising their roles from the first Elite Squad movie) is good at shifting between Nascimento’s nest-of-vipers bureaucracy, Mathias’ street-level watch-your-back conflicts and Fraga’s endless frustrations in the legislature.

Nascimento’s diligence and commitment are tempered with just the right amount of cynicism. When a raid doesn’t turn up a cache of missing weapons, he disgustedly remarks that the mission should have been called “Operation Iraq.” In a colorfully South American variation on a Dirty Harry-type line, he notes that a 7.62 bullet makes “an exit hole the size of a tangerine.” He realizes at one point that his wife fears him, his son thinks he’s a fascist and his friend thinks he’s a traitor.

Interesting and full of surprises (including more than one very unexpected murder), Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is worth seeking out.

[Rating: 3.5 stars]

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within opens in theaters from Friday November 11, 2011