06 December 2011

FIGHT THE POWERS THAT BE

There is what we might call the "Dirty Harry Rule of Sequels", except that I'm not at all sure that there are more than just the two examples I'm about to name, and two isn't enough for a rule. BUT ANYWAY, when that movie came out in 1971, it was famously described as fascist, and was generally regarded as a reactionary, anti-hippie, anti-leftist tale of using extreme violence to destroy lawbreakers, and wasn't that a great thing? And apparently somebody got spooked, because its first sequel, Magnum Force, is top-to-bottom an apologia, mounting the counter-argument that in fact the rule of law matters much more than vigilante cops.

I am reminded of this by José Padilha's Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within, which does exactly the same thing - 2007's Elite Squad, one of the biggest hits in Brazilian history, was accused (and fairly, I daresay) of being a rosy love letter to BOPE, the Special Ops unit whose mission is to keep peace in Rio de Janeiro by any means necessary, typically the enthusiastically bloody kind. Its sequel, the biggest hit in Brazilian history, is sensitive to this charge, and does whatever it can to avoid being painted with the same brush, going sort of extremely far in the opposite direction and relying on a whole lot of breast-beating speeches about how too much government-sponsored violence is the ruin of Brazil, attempting to expose the shady backroom dealings that have turned BOPE into the private army of some of the worst men in the country. The sequel is a better film than the original, but it is not for this reason: in fact, it's just about the only way in which I, for one, actively prefer Elite Squad to The Enemy Within. The original may have been simple-minded and bloody, but it didn't feel the need to go on and on about it, while the sequel stops one too many times to stop and bare its soul for my tastes.

The plot starts up sometime after the events of the original, with former Captain, present Lt. Col. Roberto Nascimento (Wagner Moura), the protagonist of the first movie, continuing to distinguish himself in BOPE and doing the good but tough work of keeping a country that seems to be made of predominately of hardened criminals (Padilha has the good sense to poke fun at this reductive worldview by having an academic "prove" that 90% of the population will be in prison by the middle of the 21st Century). Until he is brought in to help quell a prison riot, watching in horror as things turn into a colossal bloodbath. Along for the fun is civilian Diogo Fraga (Irandhir Santos), a human-rights activist on hand to make sure that the prisoners are treated humanely and legally (oops...), whose fate will be tied up with Nascimento's over the next handful of years, as the cop finds himself tangled in a nasty web of political intrigue, while the activist is elected to national office and tries to solve exactly the endemic corruption that Nascimento finds himself staring right in the face. Closer to home, Fraga marries Nascimento's ex-wife, Rosane (Maria Ribeiro), and proves a better father to the his adolescent son that Nascimento had ever been able to be, and this triggers in the cop a crisis of personality: primed by his discomfort over the prison massacre, he begins to wonder if the life of violence he leads is truly worth it, or if the cost to him and his family is too dear.

Not liking Elite Squad in more than the most idle, vague way possible, I am not perhaps in the best position to loftily claim that The Enemy Within improves upon it, really; certainly, as far as being an action movie goes, the sequel is far less kinetic and propulsive than the first movie, less exciting in every way and far more talky - the climactic showdown occurs not in the streets, but in a congressional hearing. This is of course part of what happens when the thesis of one's movie is that high-energy cinematic violence is to be avoided as part of a corrupted, violence-loving society. What The Enemy Within has to offer instead of the original's loft setpieces (and they do exist in this film; they're just fewer in number and less thrillingly-executed) is a far more nuanced character study, with Moura's performance so much richer and resonant above and beyond the added depth Nascimento is given in the screenplay, that it almost feels like he's playing a variation on the character rather than a continuation of where we left off in 2007. The new emphasis on his family life, particularly his regrets in how being a good cop has left him a bad father and husband, calling his accomplishments as a man into question even while proving his masculinity, makes The Enemy Within considerably more compelling and probing.

This is not exactly groundbreaking material, mind, and on first glance, I could not begin to say what possible reason lies behind the film's massive box office success. What it is, I think, is cultural specificity, about which I can say nothing useful. Certainly, around the midway point, the plot becomes so mired in the details of Brazilian politics that an ignorant American like myself gets quite confused by it all; it's easy enough to follow it in the Lethal Weapon register of "these rich people are the biggest bad guys, but most everybody is a little bad guy" and thus get some measure of comprehension and enjoyment out of it, but there is clearly a great deal more to it than that, an irreducible Brazilianness that totally confounds me. It's fair and appropriate, of course, that a Brazilian movie should be about Brazil; I mean only to confess my own ignorance with all due embarrassment, but that admission doesn't make me suddenly understand all the cunning ins and outs of the picture.

Moving onto more solid ground, and the film's value as a fight-the-Man thriller; it's perfectly satisfying, and brainy enough that it can't rightly be called a guilty pleasure. Padilha's direction is considerably more inventive and exploratory, trying out more emotional registers and varying the pacing more than he did in the first movie. It has to be, really, for with as much time as The Enemy Within spends with people in the corridors of power talking, or with Nascimento's brooding narration, in order to count as an action movie at all, it would take one hell of a strong directorial hand keeping everything at a high pitch even at its most sedate and chatty. Padilha's camera darts about hectically, but it never feels like he's out of control; without ever feeling stylistically empty, he keeps the film splashy enough that it's invariably engaging. And this without ever sacrificing its depth and seriousness of purpose. I will again confess that this same seriousness is a bit opaque if you don't already know what the film is going on about, and that has to count as a limitation; but even if it's not as smart as it supposes itself to be, The Enemy Within is still smart enough to be more than a decent way to waste time.

7/10

1 comment:

Chris Johnson said...

I'm very...VERY curious how Padilha's going to handle Robocop. According to the internet, he's been quoted as complaining about constant interference from the studio, and has called it (copying wikipedia) "the worst experience of his life" and "for every ten ideas he has, nine are cut". Padilha, according to Meirelles, says, "It is hell here. The film will be good, but I have never suffered so much and I do not want to do it again".

And it's going to be PG-13.