Judge Clark Douglas is cleaning the scum off the streets. Literally. With a rag.
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"I will kill every single one of you. Are you understanding me?"
Facts of the Case
Police Lieutenant Colonel Roberto Nascimento (Wagner Moura, Elite Squad) has devoted his entire life to taking down Rio de Janeiro's most notorious criminals. He leads a special ops group known for its uncompromising effectiveness, but his efforts haven't received a lot of support from the corrupt authorities he answers to. When Nascimento's attempts to defuse a prison right turns into a violent incident, the media runs with the story and creates a public frenzy. The government is eager to use the incident as an excuse to fire Nascimento, but the level of public supporting for the Colonel's actions is overwhelming. As such, Nascimento is promoted to a high-ranking security position. Initially, it seems that this new power will grant him the ability to fight crime even more effectively. Alas, it doesn't take long before he realizes that the corruption of the government runs even deeper than he suspected.
Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is a sequel to the 2007 feature Elite Squad (which I haven't seen), a very popular Brazilian film that was accused of endorsing fascism. American critics mostly drubbed the first film, but granted slightly begrudging praise to the sequel (a movie so embraced by the public that IMDb users list it as one of the top 250 movies of all time), which almost everyone involved regards as an improvement on the first. Viewers of a certain political disposition will likely be turned off by the first half of Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, which features merciless narration courtesy of Moura that depicts left-wing activists and earnest pacifists as useless at best and dangerously misguided at worst. Nascimento's point-of-view is simple: just let the police do their job (even if that job includes a little brutality every now and then), and everything will be fine.
However, the film itself isn't quite that simplistic. Eventually, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within reveals itself not as a pompous right-wing sermon but as a portrait of a man's journey from right-wing outrage to apolitical disillusionment. As Nascimento digs deeper into Rio's impossibly intricate organized crime world, he begins to realize that almost everything has been infected by corruption. The police department he values so much is being run by thugs even more dangerous than the proper criminals, the governor is indebted to very bad men and any activity which threatens to damage the established system is quickly suppressed. One of the film's most moving sights is Nascimento's increasingly defeated face as he begins to realize just how hopeless his fight is going to be. By the final act, he's surprised to find himself regarding some of the "liberal loons" he initially dismissed as allies: he may sharply disagree with their point-of-view, but at least they actually have passion and genuinely want Rio to be a better place.
This is one of the angriest films I've seen in recent years, a cinematic roar of fury and pain. It depicts Rio as a hellish cesspool of violence and corruption; a place which needs a Harry Callahan on every street corner. It begins as a politically-charged film before acknowledging that politicians on both sides of the aisle are doing nothing more than contributing to the problem. Elite Squad: The Enemy Within furiously flings Rio's harsh realities at the viewer, defying them to find a solution which fits within easily digestible, politically-correct guidelines. In some ways, it plays like a traditional cop thriller (one of the critical blurbs on the packaging appropriately compares it to The Departed), but it rises above formula by making the villain an established way of life rather than an individual. Any bad cops, violent gangsters or corrupt politicians who are taken down can be easily replaced. "The system is willing to cut off a hand to save the arm," Nascimento seethes.
I've focused on the film's more politically-charged elements, but it should be noted that Elite Squad: The Enemy Within works superbly on the surface as well. The action sequences are swift, violent and sharply-crafted; designed as simultaneously thrilling and stomach-churning affairs. The gritty documentary-style filmmaking serves the story well, and the screenplay (a collaboration between director Jose Padilha and City of God writer Braulio Mantovani) maintains our interest with a smartly-constructed, labyrinthine plot. The performances are solid across the board, though Moura is the only actor who is given a genuinely three-dimensional character. The other players are presented in rather broad strokes; easily recognizable sketches which allow us to keep moving forward without much confusion. Still, even during its slickest Hollywood-style action sequences, it's hard to ignore the unyielding, socially conscious anger which fuels the movie.
Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (Blu-ray) has received an exceptional 1080p/1.78:1 transfer which really accentuates the grungy beauty of the film's Rio locations. Detail is quite eye-popping at times, particularly those sweeping helicopter shots of Rio's famous favelas. Shadow delineation is solid and blacks are suitably deep. Even better is the DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio Mix, which is a remarkable, room-rattling experience. The movie offers a fairly relentless barrage of immersive, aggressive audio from start to finish; the action sequences deliver an impressively chaotic "you are there" experience. Meanwhile, dialogue is well-captured and subtler bits of sound design are woven in quite masterfully. Supplements are limited to a 55-minute making-of featurette which focuses more on the film's themes than on the nuts and bolts of its creation. Considering the compelling subject matter, that's a fair trade.
Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is a challenging film, but an honest one. It deals with Rio's rampant crime problem in gripping fashion, and tackles difficult questions without supplying easy answers. This is a movie well worth your time.
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