More of a “Red Riding Hood” or “Millennium Series” installment than a traditional sequel, “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” doesn’t require viewers to have seen the original “Elite Squad” because it builds upon its predecessor’s themes and ideas rather than the strict details of its plot. Director Jose Padilha, returning to the director and co-writer’s chair for the second time, crafts an engaging, morally ambiguous thriller that also fearlessly examines police and political corruption in Brazil.
Wagner Moura returns as Lt. Colonel Nascimento, a member of Brazil’s elite BOPE police squad. After a prison riot ends in a public relations fiasco, Nascimento’s superiors promote him to a different department, expecting that he’ll disappear from view and become irrelevant. Instead, he uses his new position to augment the efforts of BOPE, even as his ex-wife's new husband, a political activist named Diogo Fraga (Irandhir Santos) denounces him as a fascist. In the meantime, Nascimento’s longtime friend Mathias (Andre Ramiro) is assigned to the Brazilian militia, where he uncovers rampant corruption that is secretly supported by a number of public officials. As Nascimento tries to tackle crime in the streets and Mathias tackles it in government, the two men encounter increasing opposition, and are forced to decide whether doing the right thing is worth the potential damage not only to their livelihoods but their very lives.
If the first “Elite Squad” was Padilha’s “Goodfellas,” examining the point of view of a fascist cop and forcing the audience to identify with him, then 'The Enemy Within' is his “Casino,” taking an extra step back from that first-person account to examine not only a lifestyle, but the context in which that lifestyle can exist – and eventually, how it comes into conflict with the forces that created it. Nascimento is not a significantly different character than he was in the first film – a hard man, determined to stop crime at all costs – but in 'The Enemy Within,' he finds the perspective and goals he represents marginalized by the system that gave birth to them.
For newcomers to the series, the opening prison riot beautifully defines each of the main characters’ identities: Nascimento remains resolute in his aggressive, violent tactics to stop crime; Mathias is the unflinching agent through whom Nascimento operates; and Fraga is the diplomat whose idealism – and ignorance of the practical and political realities of Brazilian crime fighting – puts him at odds with both men. From there, however, Padilha puts the three characters on a collision course that forces each of them to reconsider their individual positions, and for the audience, eliminates comfortable divides between agreeing or disagreeing with their respective attitudes.
But what’s great about 'The Enemy Within' is that it’s entirely unnecessary to have seen the first film, because Padilha does such a comprehensive job defining his characters and then creating its world – primarily in a way that doesn’t need the back story or set-up that its predecessor provides. Moreover, once you understand the characters themselves, Padilha clearly defines the differences between the conflicting organizations, creates an understandable overall context, and then moves the individual players around like chess pieces whose every move is carefully documented.
For example, Padilha details one of Nascimento’s plans, showing how he shrewdly anticipates the chain of events that will follow his decision to attack one specific part of a larger problem: after he interrupts the supply of drugs in a slum, the corrupt cops grow restless with their dwindling kickbacks, killing the dealers, and so on and so forth. But he also doesn’t merely suggest that Nascimento (or any other character) is infallible, or even “more right” than another; in that same sequence, he shows how those corrupt cops discover an alternate way to make the money they lost from the dealers, and ultimately intensify their stranglehold on the slums as a result of Nascimento’s efforts. It’s not just natural causality that Padilha creates in both his presumed and actual scenarios, but clarity in a really clever, interesting and seemingly completely plausible way.
If ultimately your reaction to “The Enemy Within” is “wow, Brazil is a really dangerous, fucked-up place,” you probably wouldn’t be wrong, since Padilha gives his story a sense of authenticity that disappointingly few other political thrillers share. But like Scorsese does in “Casino,” Padilha creates an oddly universal sort of emotional identification with most of his main characters, so that when they go to the extremes of human behavior we understand them completely, and we’re surprisingly gratified by their actions, even when they’re only questionably appropriate. As a whole, “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” works because it devotes as much attention to the microcosm of the characters personalities as the macro of their environment and circumstances, creating a tense, engaging opus that both shines a light on a sophisticated world, and shows how the individuals within it survive. [B+]