January 31, 2011 / 5:15 AM / 8 years ago

Brazil's "Elite Squad 2" a compelling cop thriller

PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - The unabashedly entertaining “Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within,” the most successful Brazilian movie in history, gave Sundance audiences a welcome break from the usual angst and weirdness.

Director Jose Padilha has had several earlier films at Sundance and this year served as a juror in the world cinema documentary category. Action movies aren’t usually showcased at Sundance, but this movie does have the sense of political anger and urgency that distinguishes many other films at the festival.

Following up on some of the themes and characters of “Elite Squad,” the brutal thriller that won the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2008, the sequel is actually a more compelling movie. And unlike many sequels, it is completely self-contained, so if you don’t remember a thing about the first movie, that won’t interfere with your enjoyment of this one. From the brilliantly staged opening sequence — a prison riot that turns into a bloodbath — the energy never lets up.

The main character, Nascimento (Wagner Moura), the leader of Rio de Janeiro’s special military police unit, mismanages the prison riot, so he is removed from his job but eventually kicked upstairs to a government intelligence post. There he uncovers a web of corruption that spreads from the police department to the highest levels of government. Although the film is billed as fiction, it draws on real scandals in Brazil, which may explain why it has connected so powerfully with audiences at home. A smart distributor should be able to lure an American audience as well, because the picture has considerable suspense as well as piercing human insight. (Weinstein handled the first film.)

Much of the humanity comes from Moura’s performance. While Nascimento can kick butt with the sangfroid of Dirty Harry, the actor also conveys genuine anguish when surveying the tragic consequences of the violence ravaging Rio. In the opening scenes Nascimento’s nemesis is a publicity-hungry human rights advocate, Fraga (Irandhir Santos), a crusader against police brutality who also happens to be married to Nascimento’s ex-wife (Maria Ribeiro). Eventually, however, the cop and the journalist join forces to expose the real villains — a cadre of vicious, corrupt cops led by the menacing Sandro Rocha and Milhem Cortaz.

Nascimento’s relationship with his teenage son (Pedro Van Held) adds unexpected tenderness to the chases and shootouts. The violence is less relentless than in the first movie, but it still packs a visceral charge. The one flaw in the film is an excessive use of voice-over narration by Nascimento. Much of the exposition seems unnecessary given the cogent visual storytelling that Padilha masters. Tight editing drives the movie, and the director and his cinematographer, Lula Carvalho, capture the many sides of Rio, from the favelas to the sleek corridors of power. Don’t bet against a third Elite Squad.

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