There’s a very good chance you’ve spent some time in the past few week binging on Narcos, the new Netflix show about the unlikely career of one Pablo Escobar. It’s a great show, one that goes as wide as possible in considering all the effects of the U.S.’s war on drugs and its appetite for them. Maybe you’ve also wondered how the hell Narcos creator José Padilha went from directing the not-great-but-better-than-it-had-to-be Robocop remake to making something as sweeping and riveting as that. But once you’ve seen Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, it will all start to make sense.
Padilha made this film in 2010 as a sequel to 2007’s Elite Squad (his first non-documentary feature). Both movies tell the story of B.O.P.E., a paramilitary police force in Rio de Janeiro, a sort of SWAT team that thinks of itself as a Navy SEAL squad. Wagner Moura, so compelling and menacing as Escobar on Narcos, plays B.O.P.E.’s gung-ho leader Captain Nascimento. The first Elite Squad is a fucked-up but deeply compelling movie about extremist cops in extreme circumstances. Basically, Rio is overrun with the sort of criminal gangs that you might’ve seen in City of God, and they’ve made it an incredibly dangerous place to live, forcing this team of elite cops to come in and kill a whole lot of them. When the Pope comes to Rio, Nascimento gets the order to clear out as many criminals as he can in preparation for the visit, and the order results in a massive bloodbath. Some critics have called the movie fascist —and it does have that Dirty Harry thing where you find yourself sympathizing with out-of-control police— but it also takes care to show that they don’t want to be doing this, and that Nascimento, in particular, is stricken with guilt when he’s indirectly responsible for the death of a kid amid all the chaos.
But The Enemy Within is a far better movie than its predecessor, partly because of the way that it shows this sort of ultra-aggressive policing can lead to a whole new set of problems. Nascimento is older now, and after a few public-perception fights, he’s promoted out of his job and into a cushy office position overseeing wiretaps. (The promotion is handed to him both because the public loves him and because the powers that be don’t want him causing any more bloodbaths.) Now that the B.O.P.E. team he masterminded really has forced the city’s drug gangs out of power, corrupt cops come in and run the neighborhoods the same way the gangs did. Those cops make absolutely loathsome villains. They will make you want to throw shit at the television screen. You’ll find yourself sneering at them like they’re real people. It’s great. And great fodder for a sequel!
Moura is key to pulling the whole thing off. To play Escobar, he learned Spanish, gained 40 pounds, and grew that terrible mustache, so you know he’s a dedicated actor. As Nascimento, he’s barely recognizable. (Other than the quick turn that Seu Jorge, he of City of God and The Life Aquatic, gives as a prison gang leader, Moura is likely still the only actor in the movie who you might recognize.) He’s a great movie hero: too dedicated to his job to maintain any kind of family life, and too blinded by police culture to recognize who his real enemies are until late in the movie. He’s such an icy badass that he does jiujitsu sparring with his son the way an American movie cop would toss a football around. (Rickson Gracie trained Moura for the movie’s jiujitsu scenes, and yet we never get a moment where he throws an armbar on a corrupt cop. You have to respect Padilha’s restraint there.)
That Nascimento seeks justice over everything else makes for great character building, too. One of my favorite things about the movie is his relationship with the left-wing human-rights professor who married his ex-wife. At the beginning of the movie, Nascimento hates this motherfucker, and we hear the loathing in his voice when he describes the guy in the voice-over. But then we see the professor lecturing about mass incarceration in Brazil—something that hits close to home in America right now—and he seems to have some serious points. Pretty soon, we learn that the professor is brave enough to go into a prison riot as a negotiator, with no body armor or backup.
The Enemy Within has a couple of great tense action scenes—a prison-riot showdown at the beginning, a huge shootout at the end. But in both its structure and its soul, it’s more of a political thriller than anything else. Just as he does in Narcos, Padilha loves using flashbacks and narration to let you know everything about what you’re seeing. And as with Narcos, he fills the movie with scores of characters and keeps the pace rocketing forward, but somehow keeps the plot and the characters’ relationships clear. It probably helps if you’ve seen the first Elite Squad, but even that isn’t really necessary to enjoy The Enemy Within. You should be able to pick up on everything that’s happening pretty quickly.
That said, it’s not an easy movie to watch. You don’t get the rush of catharsis that you might usually get from a well-executed action movie; not all the villains are brought to justice, and the movie does what it can to subvert your expectations. In one scene, a group of crooked cops accost a likable character as someone else tensely listens in on their encounter by phone. In most movies, this would lead to a daring last-second rescue. In this one, it doesn’t happen. Instead we see the cops hiding the evidence, pulling teeth from the poor guy’s charred skull and nothing else. It leaves you lost and a little stunned. You’ll find yourself thinking: Well, that happened. Huh, oh well.
Just as he did with the first Elite Squad, Padilha co-wrote The Enemy Within with City of God screenwriter Braulio Mantovani, which probably adds to the sense of unrelenting bleakness that prevails here. You know that anyone could die at any moment, usually for no real reason. That bleakness is supplemented with fast energy that few movies can claim, and the combination makes it a crowd-pleaser despite itself. To this day, it’s the highest-grossing movie ever in Brazil. It made more than Avatar there.
Ultimately, it also helped shape Padilha’s writing, honing his ideas about policing as urban warfare, the surveillance state, and the deeply entrenched corruption of those in power. Elite Squad gave him themes to mess around with on Robocop, a remake to an already-perfect movie that really had no reason to exist. But science fiction isn’t what Padilha should be making, anyhow. The Elite Squad movies, The Enemy Within in particular, showed how great he is at capturing an overwhelming, immediate sense of chaos. As with Narcos, he’s managed to be most compelling when speaking to the recent past in a way that feels raw and urgent. That’s what he’s good at.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one. You can read previous installments over here.