All is not well in the streets of Rio de Janeiro. After the BOPE (Military Police of Rio de Janeiro State) violently squelches an inmate uprising at the Bangu 1 penitentiary, lieutenant colonel Roberto Nascimento (Wagner Moura) is promoted to sub-secretary of Intelligence at the public safety department. He has his work cut out for him, as drug cartels have turned the city’s slums into a warzone. He also has sworn enemy in History teacher and staunch liberal Diogo Fraga (Irandhir Santos), who witnessed the BOPE’s violent methods at Bangu 1 firsthand. Incensed, Fraga becomes a state representative Hell bent on exposing corruption in city government. He also marries Nacismento’s ex-wife Rosane (Maria Ribeiro), becoming stepfather to their son.
Nascimento’s efforts to eliminate the cities drug traffic prove all too successful. The constant flow of dirty money that corrupt cops have long become accustomed is cut off, prompting them to begin taxing all forms of illegal activity in the slums. With the help of the governor, Corrupt BOPE Major Rocha (Sandro Rocha) becomes the biggest crime boss in all of Rio. The disillusioned Nascimento is forced to take stock of the beast he helped create. When he finally sets out to destroy it, he finds that his allies are few indeed. He fighting both a personal and professional war and he can’t afford to lose ground in either arena.
In the last decade, Rio de Janeiro has served as the setting for a number of violent dramas, most notably the brutal City of God and the outlandish Fast Five. Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is more in the tradition of the former, though it possesses the latter’s forward momentum. It comes billed as a semi-fictionalized account of the real life BOPE. Fully aware of the seriousness of its subject matter, Jose Padhila’s thriller aims to be more than just an action flick set in an exotic locale.
The film contains its fair share of shocking, bloody violence. That being said, the carnage never feels excessive or exploitive. This is mostly because the action, while intense, is used sparingly. Unlike his American counterparts, Padhila does not seek to assault his audience with sensory overload. Even at their most exhilarating, none of the set pieces veers off into the apocalyptic or the fantastic. The scale remains on the conservative side.
Also unlike Fast Five, Padhila does not linger on the exoticism of his locale. There are no loving close ups of beautiful, scantily clad Brazilian women and their backsides. There are a few fleeting moments of revelry and celebration, most of which showcase the corruption of the antagonists. That’s not to say that the inherent vibrancy and color of the city is sacrificed. To the contrary, Rio teems with life. The audience gets a sense of the everyday people that live there, though the film keeps them on the periphery. The actions of these cops and crooks affect the quality of life in this city, and Elite Squad never loses sight of that.
Cinematographer Lula Carvalho successfully apes the pseudo-documentary style of modern American cop shows. Most of Elite Squad: The Enemy Within it appears to have been shot with a hand held camera. The dreaded “Shaky-cam” is also employed during the action scenes, though it’s kept on a relatively tight leash.
Wagner Moura gives a focused performance as Nascimento. He and writers Padhila and Bráulio Mantovani do a good job of painting a balanced picture of a hero that is reluctant to accept the truth. He remains sympathetic even after it becomes clear that his detractors aren’t necessarily wrong about him. The only minor quibble I have is with the villains of the piece, particularly the exceedingly corrupt Major Rocha. Rocha is seen mainly through the scope of a handful of heinously violent acts. He feels more like a symbol of the rampant corruption in Rio de Janeiro than an actual character. Sandro Rocha plays him with conviction, but he’s not allowed enough screen time to be as fully fleshed out as Nacimento.
Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is the kind of action film that America very rarely makes. It says a lot that a film as violent and rebellious as this one could become an all-time hit in its home territory. It forces viewers to confront a very real and immediate problem in their own government. Yet, it sacrifices none of its entertainment value. Mass entertainments need not be mindless escapism. They can actually be bold, politically conscious works.