It’s sad, but (mostly) true: the action genre has devolved into a state which rarely produces both solid storytelling and effective action. Lucky for us, director Jose Padilha didn’t get the memo. Elite Squad: The Enemy Within combines pulse-pounding action, unflinching political commentary, and compelling characters with fascinating moral dilemmas; it results not only in one of the best films of the year, but one of the best action movies in recent memory.
It’s easy to see why this movie currently stands as the highest grossing movie of all time in South America (passing Avatar during its release last year): the movie features a complex web of political corruption that surely strikes a chord with the viewership down there. It’s full of universal themes about brutality, human rights, the prison system, local government, and elections, so it’s also easy to see how this movie is relevant to any nation, democratic or otherwise. Blending some story elements from City of God and The Departed with handheld Michael Mann-esque action sequences, Elite Squad: TEW cares just as much about its story as the action beats…and that’s exactly how it should be. I don’t mean to sound elitist (get it?!), but sometimes it’s great to see a movie like this after seeing so many watered-down studio films year after year. If you watch as many movies as I do, you’ve likely grown to recognize the patterns of safe studio filmmaking, and movies like this – ones that break the mold a little bit – provide a cool breeze after bathing in the aroma of typical Hollywood sameness.
Nascimento (played by Wagner Moura, the Brazilian Mark Ruffalo) is the leader of BOPE, a special forces division in Rio de Janeiro that busts skulls to get things done; they’re like the Expendables if those guys were actually awesome and not old. When a prison riot goes bad (a righteous setpiece in the first few minutes of the movie), Nascimento is moved into another position and, after discovering a sh*tload of high-level corruption, takes it upon himself to battle against the system. A left-wing professor named Fraga – coincidentally is married to Nascimento’s ex-wife – runs parallel to our hero throughout the movie, becoming a thorn in his side not only because of his human rights complaints, but also because of the influence he has over Nascimento’s son. (Don’t worry – they could have overdone this plot point, but it’s handled pretty perfectly.) Nascimento must come to grips with the realities of the political system in his country and do what he can to uncover the corruption before things get any worse.
For those of you completely averse to reading, I’ve got some bad news: there are subtitles. But the performances are so good, the visuals so striking, and the storytelling so engrossing that it shouldn’t matter – this movie straight up kicks ass in all the right ways. The slums of Rio are presented similarly to their depiction in the excellent 2003 film City of God (the writer of that movie co-wrote this one, too), though not quite as slickly this time around; there’s a lot more at stake here than the loss of one kid’s innocence – the fate of the entire country hangs on the actions of Nascimento. Much of this movie is presented in such a smart way that it’s honestly a bit shocking to experience, especially considering that if Blockbuster stores were still a big thing, you might have seen something like From Paris With Love sharing a shelf with Elite Squad: TEW. Guess which one actually belongs in the Dumpster out back?
If you’ve been disappointed with the releases of 2011 so far, check this one out. It’ll give you a jolt of what movies are supposed to be like and remind you why you dig action movies in the first place. Until next time…