CPT Nascimento (Wagner Moura), baby-faced Commander of a brutal Brazilian cop squad called the BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion), makes Batman look like Bambi. Dive-bombing Rio de Janeiro’s sprawling slum colonies in a gun-sprouting Helicopter from Hell, Nascimento kills coke-peddling cartel thugs with graceful glee. Dime-sized pellets rain from his aircraft’s turrets, puncturing flesh and bone below. Screw the Dark Knight. In Brazil, a Battalion Beret is mightier than the Cape.
But hold on now, Dirty Harry fans. Place your Berettas back in their holsters, and listen to the deeper message behind “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within.” Director Jose Padilha reminds us that crime-fighting is not all trigger-happy lead-slinging. Be they cops, criminals, or – most likely – an ambiguous combination of both, men can be twisted unpredictably by violence. A callous killer might fall limp to his knees, weeping at the sight of a dying son. Meanwhile, a bleeding-heart cop-hater might pledge allegiance to the police, if it’s necessary to achieve the greater good.
Padilha knows that humanity is messy business. Contradictory. It ain’t Cowboys and Indians.
The final installment in an exhilarating trilogy that started with 2005’s “Bus 174” and continued with “Elite Squad” in 2007, “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” tosses us headfirst into a sweaty prison riot. Crime lords from three warring drug cartels have seized weapons and gone berserk. One bloodthirsty group sandwiches a competing gangster in bed mattresses, and then roasts him with gasoline. Things go downhill from there.
We’re quickly introduced to the film’s two lead characters, both sent to quell the riot. One is Fraga (Irandhir Santos), a left-leaning, peace-preaching negotiator who feels that police corruption is to blame for the crime wave washing over Rio de Janeiro. The other is top cop Nascimento – weary-eyed, cynical, and unforgiving. Never one to negotiate, Nascimento prefers his own, less tolerant form of intervention. The resulting collision-course between Fraga’s empathic behind-bars bargaining and Nascimento’s shoot-first tactics ends in a bloody botch. The cops are denounced as fascist barbarians.
Under considerable pressure from the liberal media, Rio’s self-serving Governor removes Nascimento from the BOPE. In an amusing twist of fate, however, the much-feared cop is actually granted a promotion – to Undersecretary of Intelligence. From this stronger administrative position, Nascimento has the power to expand the very machine from which he’s been expelled.
As one might imagine, life spent perfecting the art of exterminating enemies comes at a high personal price. Nascimento’s wife and teen-aged son have left him. Making the sting of his spouse’s departure all the more piercing, her new squeeze is none other than Frago. The new lover indoctrinates both ex-wife and child into a liberal political world-view in which cops are thugs and crime lords are inevitable by-products of a rancid legal system.
Supremely bitter over this domestic disenfranchisement, the lawmaker becomes a tower of seething rage. “To people like me,” he explains, “war is medicine. War keeps the mind busy. When pressure builds at home, I release it in the streets.”
Nascimento doesn’t mess around. Within days, he’s used his government clout to expand the BOPE from a small-scale unit to nearly 400 cops. He builds his meager, eight vehicle transit fleet into a sprawling supply of armored trucks and helicopters. He kicks ass with unprecedented firepower.
Killing drug peddlers might offer personal catharsis, but there’s a well-intended motive behind his madness. Nascimento might hate cartels, but he’s no fan of corrupt cops, either. “The less weed and coke that reaches the dealers,” he reasons, “the less money the crooked cops would make.” If the dealers go broke, so do the cops.
So far, so good. But there’s one problem. “When the payoff is small,” discovers Nascimento, “the love ends.” No drugs? No big deal. There’s a wealth of creature comforts to extort from the needy. Cable television. Running water. Public transit. Electricity. By fumigating the favelas of their drug lords, the BOPE has allowed opportunistic cops and politicians to find more lucrative means of enslaving their citizens.
Can Nascimento curb his more militant nature to become Serpico to the slums?
The largest-grossing Brazilian film of all time, “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” literally maps out the insidious, veiled ways in which corruption infects vulnerable societies. We’re shown that violent police tactics are often lauded by the public as yielding “effective results,” even as reluctant perpetrators question, in hindsight, the necessity of these methods. We see politicians embrace these men so long as such opportunistic alliances wins votes. We watch government militias (essentially “police mafia” groups) bully favela locals into paying extortion loans that can’t possibly be reimbursed.
It’s cynical. It’s infuriating. And according to Padilha (whom I interviewed in 2008), reality is even worse than what’s depicted in his films.
Several critics were turned off by “Elite Squad I.” With its vivid depictions of pointblank executions, beatings and “baggings” (use of near-suffocation to extract information during police interrogations), the film took critical fire for what many perceived was a glorification of police brutality. I don’t buy this argument. There’s nothing rousing or celebratory about these awful images. If anything, they paint overzealous cop strong-arming in a supremely negative light. But the film also captured an honest sense of the inevitable, soul-hardening callousness resulting from this harrowing job. Can we really blame these guys for their bitter, often cruel dispositions?
In contrast, “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” focuses less on the BOPE’s infiltration of gangsters and more on exposing the evil fallout resulting from government corruption. Those who had a problem with what they perceived as fascist overtones in the previous film should find this a less inflammatory angle.
There’s one niggling flaw to Padilha’s fine favela odyssey. Endangered targets are constantly putting themselves squarely in harm’s way. Is it any stretch to think that things will not turn out well for a snoopy, too-curious female journalist trailing a particularly dirty ring of loathsome lawmen?
But this is small potatoes, a mere glitch in the film’s dense, multi-layered study of good, bad, and the huge grey zone inhabited by those making up the law-and-order food chain. Mora makes a fine man of justice. His raccoon eyes suggest a weary resignation, even as he valiantly curbs an innate mean streak, in an effort to do the right thing. Santos is equally impressive as an intellectual truth-seeker with the resiliency and energy to stand up to both bullying cops and volatile drug lords, without pointing a gun.
“Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” won’t re-affirm your faith in human nature. Its Darwinian perspective on life seems to be: Biggest Predator Takes All. But there’s hope. Ultimately, the movie offers two complicated men turning against their very natures to make a difference. In this sense, Padilha’s wise, intense film is both invigorating and oddly optimistic.