Jose Padilha continues his contentious take on crime in Brazil with Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within. Padilha, who cut his teeth on the nail-biting hostage documentary Bus 174, won the Golden Bear at Berlin in 2008 for the first Elite Squad, a tale of a highly trained armed police unit charged with clearing out Rio’s slums that was controversial for its portrayal of a violent, macho approach to Brazil’s problems. Its sequel has certainly touched a nerve with the Brazilian public, becoming the highest grossing film of all time in its home country, and its tale of corruption at the top as well as the bottom shows The Enemy Within taking a step towards redressing its predecessor’s dubious message. But those that accused the original of advocating fascism are still unlikely to be won over by a sequel that takes on systemic corruption with all the subtlety of jackboot to the face.
The hero of Elite Squad 2 is once again Colonel Nascimento (the impressive Wagner Moura), the leader of the ‘Black Skull’ squadron who, thirteen years after the events of Elite Squad, is promoted to police intelligence after a botched raid. Seeing his new role as a chance to finally break the slum militias, he is shocked to discover that the space left by his wiping out of Rio’s drug cartels is being filled by rackets run by crooked policemen and politicians, and as he goes to war against the very system he has fought to support, he promptly becomes a target.
Opening with a brutal standoff between police and prison rioters and barely letting up for 116 minutes, the action in Elite Squad 2 offers a bracing, frenetic account of street-level violence. Visually rather too influenced by Fernando Meirelles’ City Of God, it is nevertheless brilliantly shot by cinematographer Lula Carvalho, who creates a constant sense of claustrophobia both in the favela and the corridors of power. The film is handled less well by Padilha, who again elects for the relentless, alienating voice-over that dogged the first film and a structure that negotiates what is a labyrinthine plot with a tepid stodginess that is thankfully rescued by fierce action.
The most fascinating aspect of The Enemy Within is that whilst it revisits its violent past, it does so in a way that works as a kind of response to the criticism levelled at the first instalment. Padilha seems to be trying to introduce some level of nuance to his chronicle of violence and corruption, and in The Enemy Within’s portrayal of a rotten system constantly replacing those at the top while remaining unchanged, it is undoubtedly reminiscent of The Wire. But while that show brilliantly explored moral shades of grey, The Enemy Within’s worldview remains resolutely black and white. Here enemies are not so much criminals as pantomime villains, and those that dare talk of the links between crime and poverty are portrayed as apologists for criminals. Nascimento’s struggle, which involves having to work with the lefty politician who has rather conveniently married his ex-wife, is meant to lead to some kind of epiphany about these ideals. But the film never really refutes them, and his eventual admission that he doesn’t know what he has been fighting for rings hollow.
The Enemy Within, far from being an admission of guilt, instead seems to suggest that society would be better off with an all-too-symbolically black-shirted police force running the show. Unseemly politics aside, it remains an effective and engrossing thriller, and its popularity in Brazil shows it has struck a nerve with a frustrated public. A cry of frustr ation full of twists and turns, it certainly excites, but the way in which it sees Brazil’s problems as both chronic and incredibly straightforward feels like a bit of a cop out.