Elite Squad, The Enemy Within and the politics of shooting people in the head

Well its been a while since I’ve posted a movie review so I apologise to my 4 1/2 followers for that. Its not that I haven’t been seeing any movies. Far from it. I’ve just too busy to write about the experience. I’ve chosen to start again with “Elite Squad – The Enemy Within” since it was recommended to me by a Brazilian friend of mine, Henrique, after we discussed the Indonesian fight-fest “The Raid”, over a few pints and parmas.

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Elite Squad – The Enemy Within is actually Elite Squad 2 (ES2) which I didn’t know when I bought the DVD at JB. A quick text to Henrique confirmed that I wouldn’t be hopelessly lost if I started to watch this before Elite Squad 1. However I must warn you all that Elite Squad 2, is 70% Politics, Corruption, Drama and Intrigue and only 30% actual shooting people in the head. So I was fooled by the DVD cover which seemed to promise much more of the latter. I should also have been alerted to this possibility by Henrique’s Text message review of “The Raid” which stated he felt that the fighting got in the way of the plot. Something amiss there I think.

Set 13 years after the original Elite Squad, ES2 begins with the end in mind. We see a violent ‘hit’ being arranged on former Rio SWAT commander Nascimento (Wagner Moura) and the rest of the film takes us through the events that culminated in the arranged hit.

This starts with a staged riot in Rio’s notorious maximum-security Bangu 1 penitentiary – housing the most violent street gangs – in separate wings. But someone has allowed the leader of one of the gangs (Seu Jorge) to get access to weapons and with his gang he begins a bloody and brutal rampage through the prison settling old scores and preventing new ones.  The Elite “Special Operations Battalion” (BOPE) led by Lieutenant Nascimento and Captain Andre Matias are called in to quash the riot.  In parallel human rights leader and left wing lawyer Diogo Fraga is called in by Rio’s Governor as the only person the gang’s will negotiate with. A tense stand-off occurs between BOPE and the gang as Fraga is taken hostage.  Now the motto of BOPE is “A Mission Assigned, is a Mission Accomplished”, so the stand-off doesn’t end well for the gang.

Fraga is rescued unharmed albeit covered in the blood and brains of his unfortunate captors.  Fraga immediately denounces BOPE’s tactics in front of a media throng and all but accuses Nascimento and Matias of ex-judicial murder. Thanks guys. To deflect the media furor the Governor and his advisers decide to demote Matias to a junior role in archives and move Nascimento out of a field role and into the Deputy Security Chief’s position.

Its starting to get complicated. Even more complicated is the fact that Nascimento’s estranged wife and his 10 year old son live with Fraga – his accuser and personal polar opposite. Becoming emotionally remote from his son Nascimento buries himself in his work. He uses his new influence to get BOPE additional resources and they use this to wage an intense war on the drug dealers in Rio’s slums. Nascimento fights the good fight. But with the drug dealer’s business model seriously compromised the kick-backs to Rio’s Police department start to run dry. And with this tempers start to run hot.

The Police find a solution by devolving into Militias, bypassing and eliminating the weakened Drug Dealers and begin to impose their own extortion cum taxation regime on the residents of the slums. (Its bloody, blunt and brutal and by all accounts close to what is actually happening in the real world). The political and bureaucratic classes benefit from this new state of affairs and of course have claimed victory. But in this case the cure is worse than the disease.

All of the threads of the narrative begin to interwine. Nascimento slowly begins to realise his war has actually made things worse. Whats more he is now faced with ruthless internal enemies addicted to corruption. Fraga himself is getting further involved, and using his celebrity from the prison riot embarks on a political career. His political and investigative activities by extension begins to expose Nascimento’s family to danger. Nascimento and Fraga are personal enemies. Their broader cause however, starts to converge. As the Militias start to spread their influence over other parts of the city, Matias is offered another chance to lead BOPE on a mission to deal with the supposed perpetrators of a daring attack on a Police Station. The background temperature is turned up as the Governor and his cronies face elections and are looking for any angle of leverage and advantage.

Nascimento understands who his real enemies are and prepares to deal with them, bringing us back to the arranged hit. No spoilers so I have to stop the plot at this point.

This is a great film. Even if you are not Brazilian, can’t speak Portuguese and don’t know anything about the gangs, militias and political corruption in Brazil. Despite this I found it hard to fix on my emotional reaction to ES2. Because I’m not living it. I don’t know if I should be entertained, horrified, outraged or even sad. Possibly all of the above.

The craft of the film is wonderful. The blood and guts of the prison riot was woven in a fascinating way with a lecture by Fraga about the prison system to comfortable middle-class Brazilian intellectuals. His call out to negotiate with the rioters smashing practice and theory together. The acting is superb – across the board. Great music and cinematography. The opening credits featuring quick shots from the first film are probably the best I’ve seen. Now I shouldn’t have taken Henrique’s advice. I should have watched Elite Squad 1 first. So as soon as I’m finished with that I’ll watch “Elite Squad – The Enemy Within” again, because there is a tonne of stuff I’ve missed. And I need to think about this again.

Of course after that I’ll watch the Indonesian masterpiece “The Raid” for the 5th time.

Because I can.

So ES2 ?  – 8 1/2 out of 10.

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