Tuesday, 14 February 2012

ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN - Review by Greg Klymkiw - Blood spills, spurts and sprinkles every which way upon the streets of Rio in this slam-bang action epic from José Padilha, Brazil's coolest documentarian AND action director, plus Bráulio Mantovani, the screenwriter who gave us "City of God".

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2011) dir. José Padilha
Starring: Wagner Moura, Irandhir Santos, André Ramiro


By Greg Klymkiw

Criminal activity wends its way through a metropolis like a labyrinth. When the city itself is Knossos-like; when around every corner, in every nook, every cranny, under every rock, behind every brick, perched on every rooftop and practically dropping from the Heavens are adversaries more formidable than a Minotaur (and armed with automatic weapons, knives and machetes), not even Theseus himself would stand a chance unless he was backed up by an elite para-military force. Such is the delightful Brazilian vacation hot-spot Rio de Janeiro and such is the setting of this spectacular fact-based action picture that plunges you deep into the maze of criminal activity - so insidious, so viral, so unbeatable that even when you think it's been wiped out, it's morphed into something even more powerful.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is a sequel to director José Padilha's hit 2007 hit Elite Squad which was based upon the book by real-life Rio crime-fighter Rodrigo Pimentel and part of Padilha's trilogy on criminal activities in Brazil that began with his harrowing feature documentary Bus 174. Elite Squad 2 as it's known in Brazil is that country's highest grossing theatrical release of all time and has even left James Cameron's Avatar choking in its dust. This is no surprise. If even a tiny percentage of the activities detailed in this film are true, one can only imagine how powerfully it would have captured the imaginations of its indigenous peoples.

The film details the efforts of Nascimento (Wagner Moura), leader of Rio's para-military police unit known by its acronym BOPE (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais). These guys are monsters and easily as brutal as the criminals they fight. They're armed well beyond what normal law enforcement officers use in their day-to-day work. They specialize in urban warfare and more often than not, act as assassins - going into the favelas (slums) of Rio to engage in wholesale mass-executions.

The movie begins with Nascimento leading a BOPE unit within Rio's largest prison which is comprised entirely of three drug cartels (all separated from each other in three different wings of the prison). Incarceration is not a deterrent to their activities. Behind the prison walls, it's business as usual and a deadly one at that.

When a riot breaks out, Nascimento goes into immediate action and if necessary, he'll just blow everyone away including their hostages (criminals from a rival cartel - so no real loss). Fraga (Irandhir Santos), a leading academic/activist is called in by the political powers-that-be to mediate and when he's taken hostage, one of Nascimento's best men blows the bad guy away and saves Fraga's life. Alas, Fraga's pro-peace shirt is spattered with the blood of the man who would have slaughtered him like a pig. As any good bleeding heart Liberal would do, he uses this opportunity to make a case in front of the media that BOPE are nothing more than human rights violators of the highest order.

The government fires Nascimento to pleaae the bleeding hearts, but then promotes him to Head of all Security measures in Rio to please the majority of the population and right-wing elements who have hailed Nascimento as a hero. Once our crime-fighting cop becomes a high-level government bureaucrat, the movie (which has already begun with a major series of wallops) zooms into major overdrive and the events that follow become even more insane.

This is the section of the film I found especially gripping and fascinating. Every effort made by Nascimento to clean up the crime is detailed, carried out successfully and thrillingly and then, a whole new form of criminal activity morphs out of the rubble of what once was and becomes even more difficult to battle. The story takes on an epic sweep over several years and we're often open-mouthed at the various transformations within the constantly shifting crime scenes which, in turn, parallel the shifts in government policy and internal corruption at every level of law enforcement. As well, one of the chief conflicts of the film is between Nascimento and Fraga as they both rise on opposite ends of the law enforcement divide until they eventually are forced to play by the same rules.

There's great writing here. Juggling the constant power shifts and myriad of characters while infusing the movie with resonance beyond a Jerry Bruckheimer-styled actioner with Brazilian spice is handled with both intelligence and efficiency. I was less fond of the subplot involving Nascimento's family (and the somewhat hackneyed use of Fraga as a current lover to Nascimento's wife), but it works on a level of proficiency in terms of adding that audience-pleasing "now it's personal" touch.

Padilha coaxes superb performances out of his entire cast and his direction of the action scenes is top-flight. He uses his keen documentary eye to deliver a flavour of immediacy and real-life frissons, but at the same time, not resorting to the overly herky-jerky approach used by bargain basement Paul Greengrass wannabes. Frighteningly, Padhila's mise-en-scene inspires me to predict that the almost Third-World conditions of the United States might well mirror all of this in our lifetimes.

But, let's put those concerns aside for now. For little boys and those little boys that never grew up, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is first-rate derring-do and I'd be remiss to leave out how cool BOPE's uniforms are - they're easily on a par with the totalitarian Triumph of the Will-influenced uniforms in Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers and the real-life emblem of BOPE (a skull with crossbones comprised with deadly weapons) is cooler than cool.

Best of all, the guns are shot and framed like steely penile implants that explode superior firepower.

Damn! I can hardly wait to see the next movie from Padilha.

He rocks. Big time!!!

"Elite Squad: The Enemy Within" is currently available on DVD and BLU-Ray. In Canada it's available through VVS Films. If your favourite video store is not stocking it, DEMAND IT! And if you love action/crime pictures, it's definitely worth owning anyway. I've even seen it for sale at Wal-Mart, so you have no excuse.