Fantastic Fest 2011 – ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN Review

     September 26, 2011

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So, by this point, you’ve probably heard a thing or two about Jose Padilha’s Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (formerly Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within).  I’d heard about the film all the way back during Sundance, when a friend of mine raved about the film endlessly for weeks after seeing it.  Since then, I’ve heard through the grapevine that Padilha’s film was one of the best action films ever made (no, really), and so I knew—the moment I saw the film on the Fantastic Fest schedule—that I’d have to make an effort to see the flick.  Did it live up to the hype?  Find out after the jump, folks.

I’m really torn on Jose Padilha’s Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, but not for the normal reasons.  Generally, action flicks break down into three categories for me:  those that are dumb but fun, those that are smart and fun, and those that are dumb and not fun.  There’s very little grey area in this genre to me (it’s simply not my preferred genre—like the moose out front says, “Soooorry, folks”), and everything I’d heard about Elite Squad 2 (which is what I’ll be calling the film here for brevity’s sake) had led me to believe that it’d be one of the former.  At worst, I figured that all those people would be wrong and the film would be dumb…but still good on the action front.

elite-squad-2-the-enemy-within-imageImagine my surprise—and the aforementioned tearing—when I discovered that Elite Squad 2 is an even rarer beast:  the hyper-intelligent action film with great action scenes…that just wasn’t all that fun to watch.  Maybe it was my mood, maybe it was the timing of the screening itself, or maybe Elite Squad 2 just didn’t spin a yarn that kept me intrigued from beginning to end, but after seeing the film I find myself in the odd position of defending Padilha’s skills as a writer/director while admitting that I really just wasn’t all that entertained by his movie.

This is, of course, the well-known phenomenon known as “The Dave Matthews Band Effect”:  I can appreciate the talent that went into creating the product, and I can see why others might enjoy the product, but at the end of the day, it’s just not my thing.

Elite Squad 2 tells a complex tale of corruption, greed, and bullet wounds in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.  Things get off to a rocky start when a prison riot goes south, leading Colonel Nascimento (Wagner Moura)—the guy in charge of the resistance effort within the prison– to get promoted (as they do in Hollywood, people in Rio fail upwards) to a cushy position in the upper echelons of Rio’s government. A corrupt governor had climbed into bed with some of the local police captains, and—over a stretch of time covered in the film’s first half—the corrupt officials manage to bleed Rio’s slums dry by charging citizens to…well, to do just about everything:  use the internet, eat, buy booze, stay safe, and so on.  We see that things are very, very corrupt in Rio de Janeiro, and though the film goes to great pains to tell us that the film is fictional (though based in realistic events), we can’t help but assume that this is the way Padilha views his country’s government.

elite-squad-2-the-enemy-within-imageThat idea compels me, but the story presented in Elite Squad 2 did not.  I couldn’t help but feel that a lot of what’s present here—as based in reality as it may be—was a little obvious, a little “seen it before”. I was also thrown by the long stretches between action in the film’s first two acts:  there’ll be scenes punctuated by violence and gunplay, and then many scenes where corrupt politicians and police officers scheme about stuff.  The person sitting on my left in the screening sighed loudly throughout the film’s first thirty minutes before literally throwing her hands up in the air and taking off, and the person on my right made confused noises (“Heh?” and “Bwaah?” were among them) before leaving, as well.  I was never tempted to give up on the film completely—I was determined to see some of this “best action ever made” stuff that everyone was talking about—but I do confess to being a little bored from time to time.

Things picked up later on, after Nascimento realizes that something fishy’s going on.  One of his former squad members ends up shot in an alley during a raid with a handful of the corrupt police officers, so he goes on a mission of revenge to A) kill the people responsible, B) keep his family safe, and C) to restore a little honor and dignity to the police force.  This is when the film really picks up, and it’s true that the action is all well-shot, full-throttle, and fun…I just wish that there’d been more of it during the film’s first half.

elite-squad-2-the-enemy-within-imageIndeed, the best scenes in the film are the ones where Padilha really flexes his muscles as an action director, but that’s not to say that the rest of the stuff is lifeless.  Even the scenes that feature a handful of corrupt officials sitting around a desk plotting shady things have an electricity to them, and after I noticed that I realized just how talented Padilha is:  I might not be compelled by the story—though I imagine many of you would be—but his camerawork, the performances he gets out of the actors, and the non-action staging are all top-notch.  I would very much like to see a Jose Padilha film that isn’t about all the things that Elite Squad 2 was about, and it sounds like the director’s upcoming Robocop remake will offer that (and that he might be toying with some of the same themes in that film).

While I didn’t love Elite Squad 2, I fully appreciated the artistry on display, and recognize the talent behind the camera.  There’s a very good chance that Padilha could become one of Hollywood’s go-to action guys (assuming that Robocop turns out well, of course), and in between that and the film’s strong action sequences, I’m going to recommend Elite Squad 2.  Be aware that you’re going to get a healthy dose of “corrupt officials doing corrupt things, often in a very chatty way”, and you’ll probably enjoy it.

My grade?  B-

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