‘Elite Squad: The Enemy Within’ Is a Thriller that Will Reward Genre Fans

Jose Padilha’s 2007 police thriller Elite Squad is notorious for becoming a huge hit on the bootleg market in Brazil after an early cut was robbed. Despite this crime, it still did well in theaters and built a strong following across that country. Expectations were extremely high for the sequel, which returned many of the main characters but expanded the scope. This time, the political forces behind the mayhem become the central focus.

Avoiding the bootlegging issues of the original, this film became the country’s biggest hit of all time and even surpassed Avatar as the highest-grossing movie. Although it was the submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar from Brazil this year, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within hasn’t made the same dent here in the United States. It’s likely to find a significant audience on DVD and Blu-ray with this new release.

Wagner Moura stars as Lt. Colonel Nascimento, the former leader of the BOPE (Portuguese: ), an elite special-forces wing of the Rio de Janeiro police force. When their response to a prison riot goes awry, he gets shipped into a government investigative unit and pushed away from the action.

With BOPE weakened, corrupt militia elements of the force start taking over the slums. They violently expel the drug dealers, but this new form of organized crime is even nastier. Under their guise as cops, this group viciously gains control and will do anything to keep it. Major Rocha (Sandro Rocha) leads the militia and is doing a lot more than making a few dollars for his gang. Instead, the plans involve high-ranking government officials who have eyes on retaining control. It’s an ingenious scheme that’s difficult to combat because powerful men are pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Driven by Nascimento’s voiceover narration, this sequel presents a complicated landscape that’s moved well beyond a black-and-white world. Even idealistic figures like State Representative Fraga (Irandhir Santos) have a personal stake in moving things a certain way. He’s pushing for a hearing to reveal the corruption, which could hurt the bad guys but will also help his election chances. Even an investigative journalist like Clara (Tainá Müller) faces obstacles because her newspaper supports the governor.

Padilha and co-writer Bráulio Mantovani depict a world where even trying to do the right thing can be impossible. Cops may think that taking out the drug dealers is a good move, but their actions may set up even worse figures to take their place. In the political sphere, even crooked guys can give passionate speeches and inspire voters, and they’ll do anything to stay in power. Individuals who step out from the crowd do so at their own peril.

Following the prison riot, the story moves along fairly slowly as Nascimento explains the way that Rocha enacts his plan. Padilha provides a lot of information that might disengage a few viewers, but the rewards are worth sticking it out. Voiceover can be a tricky method for imparting details, but it works much better than expected. This material builds the environment and makes all the players clear so we’re on board when the action picks up. Nascimento is passive at the start and allows some events to happen, but everything changes when friends and family come under fire.

Fraga and Nascimento have much-different viewpoints, but they become unlikely allies. Their connection is even trickier because Fraga is now with Nascimento’s ex-wife and teenage son. They both have enough influence and the drive to make a difference, even if it puts them in serious danger. The final act includes several tense conflicts with the militia closing in on the few people willing to take a stand. The slow-burn approach really pays off and brings extra weight to the final gunfights where their survival is extremely unlikely.

This combination Blu-Ray/DVD release includes just a single extra, but it provides interesting material. The behind-the-scenes documentary provides nearly an hour of interviews with Padilha, Moura, and all the other key cast and crew members. It’s a surprisingly engaging discussion, with the director really digging into this film’s place in his career and what he was trying to accomplish. This feature goes through all the key elements of the movie and provides some good background. There are parts that could probably have been cut to deliver a tighter production, but it still avoids becoming like the typical promotional materials found on many releases.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within provides interesting political intrigue and action, but it only works with solid performances. Moura is excellent in the lead role and keeps Nascimento interesting even while he sits on the sidelines. Rocha brings just the right slimy charisma to his role of the same name, and André Mattos is perfectly cast as the massive Fortunato. Maria Ribeiro also does well as Nascimento’s ex-wife Rosane, though her screen time is limited.

I haven’t seen the original Elite Squad and can’t comment on how this movie compares. It stands apart as a effective thriller that should please genre fans and find a solid audience.

RATING 7 / 10