On my short list of must-see film titles for 2011, Jose Padilha's "Elite Squad: The Enemy Within" was certainly at the top of the roster. I first became aware of Padilha with the 2002 documentary feature "Bus 174," an unforgettable true life story of a bus hijacking that played out very publicly in the Brazilian media. It was a harrowing picture that had as much to say about contemporary journalism, rampant crime, local corruption, political maneuvering, and the state of the police as it did about the actual event it portrayed. I think that it is fair to say that some of these same themes have remained a constant in all of the writer/director's future film endeavors as well. That said, I do want to point out that "Elite Squad: The Enemy Within" is actually a sequel to the 2007 project entitled (you guessed it) "Elite Squad." While the two films are certainly better served as companion pieces, this does have a self contained story that can be enjoyed on its own merits. If you choose to see this without having seen the first picture, you might miss out on some of the character back story--but the screenplay brings you up to speed rather quickly and efficiently.
The movie centers around the returning character of Captain Nascimento, effectively played by Wagner Moura. Moura is in charge of a special crime unit and when a prison riot goes awry, the squad's tactics and decisions are called into question by human rights activists (led spectacularly by his ex-wife's new husband). Public opinion, however, sides with the fast acting and uncompromising Moura and thrusts him into a position of even more power. Making it a mission to eliminate Rio's rampant drug crisis, he targets the lower class slums where the problem has its strongest foothold. But in eliminating the obvious enemy, he may make way for a more unexpected nemesis. As dirty cops and unscrupulous politicians jockey for new power, Moura starts to realize that he has cut off the head of one monster to see another (more nefarious) one take its place. Unable to trust those in power, he sees new allies in the media and the activists that had once been critical of Moura's methods. The turn-around is compelling and believable and undeniably frightening.
The film is shot in a gritty documentary style that makes the unpleasantness all the more tangible. While perhaps the narrative relies a little too heavily on voice-over analysis, it does keep Moura's viewpoint in perspective as the large story leaves him on the sidelines for large chunks of the action. In essence, this is a morality play disguised as a ruthless crime saga--but in that vein, it is surprisingly understated. The character shifts are subtle and the action is unrelentingly real. It's hard to imagine that the film can have a happy or satisfying conclusion, but what we're left with certainly seems appropriate even if it doesn't wrap everything up in a neat little bow. In the end, the characters distinguish this piece (Moura is fantastic) that has universal topicality in its themes of corruption and those who would combat it. "Elite Squad: The Enemy Within" is a rare picture that will make you think while it entertains. About 4 1/2 stars. KGHarris, 2/12.