The titular organization is BOPE, Rio de Janeiro’s version of our SWAT. Heading up its command is Lt. Col. Roberto Nascimento (Wagner Moura, “Woman on Top”), and their latest emergency assignment comes at a maximum-security penitentiary where members of the drug cartels not killed by the government are held, each of three sequestered in its own wing to keep them from killing each other. One crooked cop is paid enough money by one cartel head to smuggle in a gun, and the result is utter carnage, which human-rights activist Fraga (Irandhir Santos) uses to his media advantage.
In Hollywood, the prison siege alone could make for an entire movie. But here, it’s a mere extended prologue that sets a larger chess game in motion. That’s how epic in scope this picture is. Although Padilha expertly stages his action sequences, he’s less concerned with them than he is with their consequences across levels of society.
For example, although Lt. Col. Nascimento becomes popular with the public, the bought-and-paid-for governor discharges him from BOPE in a classic scapegoat move. However, this allows Nascimento to be hired as undersecretary of intelligence — a desk gig to oversee wiretapping and surveillance. Nascimento sees this position as a golden opportunity, not only fight the drug cartels, but the corrupt system of cops and legislators that allows them to flourish. He turns BOPE — already a considerable police force — into a war machine.
Padilha’s just getting started. And so are the less-than-honest cops, who are too busy fleecing their public to protecting it. With a story that plays out across a span of several years, “Elite Squad: The Elite Within” may be marketed to Americans as an offshoot of “The Expendables” — skull logo and all – but that’s because words like “sociopolitical” scare away potential renters.
Don’t be! While viewers will gain a real feel for how the criminal system works in simpatico with elected officials, they’ll also get their money’s worth in stealthily crafted set pieces of stakeouts and bloodshed, and Moura’s commanding lead performance amid a supporting cast of dozens of players, each vital to the story no matter how small the role. In both relevance and real-deal suspense, the work belongs up there with the best of Martin Scorsese’s behind-the-curtain looks at criminal enterprises.
Yes, it’s that stellar. It’s that vital. —Rod Lott