Fantastic Fest ’11 Mini-Reviews: “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” and “How to Steal 2 Million”

If you couldn't make it into their first plays at Fantastic Fest, these two culturally rich action films are both worth catching during their second time around....Read More

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The only thing more harrowing than many of the genre films at Fantastic Fest is trying to get into see them, so I leave you with two recommendations written on the fly before their second screenings at the Austin-based fest. Both crime thrillers well worth your time, you know when I say I'm providing bullet points, I mean it. All our Fantastic Fest coverage to date can be found here.

"Elite Squad: The Enemy Within"

It was natural for the Fantastic Fest crowd to ask how Jose Padilha would reboot “Robocop” for what appears to be his next project. But as the moderator for the post-screening Q & A cleverly positioned the question, Padilha’s film “Elite Squad” and its sequel, which was the reason he was in Austin to begin with, lays out a pretty clear groundwork for what to expect as a hard-charging action film that doesn’t check its social consciousness at the door.

EliteSquad2 “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” picks up where the last one left off, though thanks to a distribution snafu few audiences outside the festival circuit would see it in the U.S. One doesn’t need to in order to get where then-Captain, now-Colonel Nascimento (Wagner Moura) is coming from. Announcing his right-wing leanings from the start, he inadvertently gives rise to Fraga (Irandhir Santos), one of the “left-wing intellectuals” he despises — not only for his political beliefs but because he’s married to his ex — when he sends the human rights activist into a hostage standoff in prison and the subsequent death of one of the prisoners gives Fraga the platform to be elected as a state legislator. Meanwhile, the death of Nascimento’s watch means that he gets kicked upstairs to a desk job where he becomes disillusioned with the fact that not everyone on the force has been as above board as he’s been.

Padilha once again brings a visual panache to the proceedings, whether he’s following Nascimento deep into the favelas to smoke out Brazil’s massive network of drug dealers or gliding into the offices where the colonel finds himself truly at war at the bureaucracy he eventually deems to be corrupt. In both arenas, the film keeps clicking along since the machinations of the script are as thoroughly thought out as the action, with Nascimento and Fraga’s paths crossing on occasion as they separately go about bringing down the system. Although it probably goes without saying that Padilha isn’t afraid of juicing up the real-life corruption in Brazil to fit his needs for entertainment value, the insistence on the film being based on fact does give it an extra urgency, even if it doesn’t ever shed its cinematic gloss in the same way as co-writer Bráulio Mantovani’s “Elite Squad” predecessor “City of God” did.

Still, “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” works well in broad strokes and despite the fact it’s Brazil’s highest-grossing film ever and the country’s Oscar submission this year, Padilha said during the Q & A that audiences shouldn’t expect a third since “I’ve said what I wanted to say about urban violence.” Indeed, Padilha leaves it all on the floor with “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within,” bodies and all, and that's what makes it thrilling.

HowtoSteal2Million “How to Steal 2 Million”

Just as in Djo Munga's South African-set thriller "Viva Riva" earlier this year, there's a refreshing innocence to "How to Steal 2 Million," even when one of its characters are ruthless enough to rob their own father of the stated bounty. With a twisty thriller as intriguing and straightforward as its title, director Charlie Vundla doesn’t feel beholden to anything but his own story when Twala, the son of a businessman, employs a recent parolee who wants to stay clean and a lady of the night to empty out his pops' safe to pay off his own debts, though the result is a primer on how not to steal 2 million.

Such bad luck shouldn't befall Menzi Ngubane’s Jack, the charismatic lead of the film whose resemblance to Samuel L. Jackson extends beyond the black leather jacket and mustache to the confidence he carries, comparing his return to crime to "popping a pimple." He's hardly enthusiastic about the one final job, particularly when he learns who his partner will be, Olive, a street-smart woman who announces with no hint of irony, I'm a bitch with a gun, don't fuck with me."

Better yet, Vundla doesn't fuck with a formula that works, bearing witness to a cycle of backstabbings and betrayals when Jack and Olive’s best-laid plans go awry. "How to Steal 2 Million" is clearly influenced by American noirs as well as exploitation, but develops a rhythm of its own as secrets of each character come to light, though not in a way that feels contrived or overly telegraphed. One shouldn’t expect anything flashy from the film’s style, yet there’s enough flavor from the Johannesburg setting to spice up what might otherwise be a fairly traditional potboiler and more than enough to recommend it as a promising debut.  

"Elite Squad: The Enemy Within" plays Fantastic Fest once more tonight at 8:30 p.m. and will open in New York on November 11th and Los Angeles on November 18th before starting a national run via the Flatiron Film Company. "How to Steal 2 Million" does not yet have U.S. distribution, but will play Fantastic Fest once more at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, September 27th.

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