Saturday, April 28, 2012

ELITE SQUAD:THE ENEMY WITHIN (Tropa de Elite 2: O Inimigo Agora e Outro, 2010)

Jose Padilha's sequel to his 2007 Brazilian blockbuster stands in relation to the original somewhat as Magnum Force does to Dirty Harry. Like Don Siegel's Eastwood epic, the original Tropa de Elite was accused of "fascism" in some quarters for its endorsement (if not advocacy) of uncompromising tactics in the war on street crime. Like the second Harry film, Tropa de Elite 2 appears to tell the critics, "this is what fascist cops look like," while stressing that the original hero would fight such people. Back in 2008, in one of my first reviews for this blog, I wrote that whatever its attitude toward police and crime, Elite Squad didn't feel like a fascist film; despite an apparent contempt for leftist opinion, it was too pessimistic, with too much emphasis on the essential thanklessness of the supercops' work and too little emphasis on glory and vindication. If anything, the sequel is more pessimistic, bordering on noir in its emphasis on a flawed hero's strategic error and the ruins of his personal life, while its attitude toward the left is somewhat less adversarial when you subtract personal factors. The main thing, however, is that Elite Squad 2 is a grim, hard-hitting account of a comprehensively corrupt socio-political system that may be more than one man can master.

Beto Nascimento (Wagner Moura) still hopes to master the system. The primary hero of the first film is now a colonel in the BOPE (aka the "Skulls") but is kicked upstairs after a prison riot hostage situation ends in a fiasco of a massacre of convicts. The incident proves a PR disaster because the hostage negotiator called in is Diogo Fraga (Irandhir Santos), a leftist professor with political ambitions who did seem to have the crisis under control before Beto's old colleague Andre Matias (Andre Ramiro)reflexively kills the lead hostage-taker. Fraga flaunts his bloodstained shirt before the TV cameras and denounces the police. For Beto, the most galling thing about the debacle is that Fraga is the stepfather of Beto's son, the husband of his ex-wife. As our representative leftist, however, Fraga is a less cartoonish figure than the student radicals from the first film. Beto's voiceover during a Fraga lecture establishes our hero's contempt for the man's beliefs, but in fact Fraga seemed to be an effective negotiator and he'll later prove Beto's most reliable ally in the struggle with the system. If anything, Beto ends the film closer to Fraga's viewpoint than to any "fascist" opinion -- but he'll always feel that "human rights" are secondary to the need to wipe out crime and corruption. And his attitude toward Fraga will remain clouded by the suspicion that his replacement is teaching his boy to hate him for what he is -- a tough cop.

When is Diogo Fraga in more trouble: when he's held at gunpoint (above)
or when Beto Nascimento is angry at him (below)?

Beto ends up with more authority over the Skulls and uses it to turn the group into a "war machine" that actually makes a major dent in the drug trade in Rio's slums. He knows that chasing the dealers away (or killing them) is only the first step in eliminating corruption. The next -- dealing with corrupt cops -- he expects to be easier.


Beto expects corruption to dry up when the cops no longer have dealers to pay them protection money. This is his big mistake. It turns out that by wiping out the slum drug gangs he had only eliminated the middlemen and opened the door for the corrupt cops themselves, led by the monstrous Major Rocha (Sandro Rocha) -- a minor character in the first movie -- to take over the slums as all-encompassing extortionists. Worse for Beto, Rocha and his "militias" have political cover; they can now deliver votes to the local governor and a political boss who has his own raucous TV talk show. The militias take a cut of everything, from portable cooking fuel to bootleg cable TV. For the film's purposes, they're worse than the gangs that Beto eliminated -- but for the moment (Beto narrates in retrospect, the film starting in typical modern crime-story faction with a present-day burst of violence before flashing back to four years ago) he doesn't realize what's going on.

The bad and the ugly: Major Rocha punishes a slum vendor for not paying (above) while celebrity legislator Fortunato (Andre Mattos) taunts the government on his TV show.

One neighborhood remains to be cleansed. The politicians have saved it so they can keep crime alive as an election issue. Rocha stages a robbery of a police arsenal and blames it on neighborhood gangs in order to justify a BOPE sweep, led by Andres, freshly reinstated after being thrown under the bus over the prison fiasco, but not as reliable as the militia leaders want. When his plastic-bag torture of a gang leader leads Andres to suspect that the gangs didn't do the robbery, Rocha has both Andres and the gang leader killed.


But nosy journalists with connections to Fraga, now a legislator, begin to piece together the truth. Following up on a loose remark by his son, who works in Fraga's office, Beto has Fraga's phone line tapped in time to hear him talk to the journalist, who has discovered evidence not just of the weapons but of the militias' political ties, just as Rocha comes down on her, assuring the writer of a gruesome fate. Having taken her phone, Rocha knows, just as Beto does, that she was talking to Fraga right up to her capture. Beto realizes that not just Fraga but his ex-wife and son are in mortal danger -- and once he makes a move to protect them, his life will also be in jeopardy....

Tropa de Elite 2 is a sweeping portrait of systematic corruption that transcends political labels. If anything, Beto's escalating confrontation with "the system" at all its levels reveals Padilha's agenda as radical rather than "fascist." The issue in either film has never been what sort of political system Brazil needs but the pressing need for root-and-branch reform. To the extent that the sequel makes that more clear and gradually sets aside the first film's superficial anti-leftist rhetoric as Beto overcomes his personal animosity and tentatively joins forces with Fraga, it's a dramatic improvement on the first Elite Squad. The fact that both Wagner Moura and Irandhir Santos give great performances, supported by a range of seedy types worthy of an American, Italian or Japanese crime saga, certainly enriches the sequel, which should be an enrichment of the original story. Beto may be an obnoxious narrator for some viewers early on, but as his misadventures open his eyes and ours Elite Squad 2 becomes a riveting thriller that renews the original's promise of a Brazilian or South American crime or cop genre to rival the benchmark work of the U.S., Japan and Italy. Here's hoping for more where that came from.

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