The concept for last year’s The Purge was one of the more interesting and thought-provoking ideas of the year: what if our government officials attempted to reduce crime rates by making all crime legal for one twelve hour period each year. With its frightening overtones and star Ethan Hawke, it became a breakout hit — for all of the wrong reasons. What everyone was flocking to theaters to see (the dramatic exploration of what it would be like during this specific period of time and the subtle social commentary that would come along with it) was reduced to an arbitrary, paint-by-numbers home invasion story with no genuine thrills (or chills). It didn’t matter to the studio; the film made over ten times what it cost to make on opening weekend. A sequel was announced that following Monday to capitalize on the popularity, ultimately giving us The Purge: Anarchy, which, as a lot of people have pointed out, does what the isolation of the first film failed to do by focusing on the true terror of the purge.
Taking place a year after the original film (natch), the sequel (once again written and directed by James DeMonaco) does a good job at broadening the scope of the yearly “holiday” by placing us right in the middle of the streets of Los Angeles to reveal how different levels of the socioeconomic ladder deal with the insanity of the purge, as well as the dark secrets that help the purge continue to be as successful as the New Founding Fathers need it to be.
We first meet our main players a couple of hours before the purge begins. Eva (Carmen Ejogo) is a waitress looking to get home to her daughter, Cali (Zoë Soul), who is fixated on the rantings of an underground faction that sees the purge differently than the wealthier population. For them, the purge is nothing more than a blatant attempt by the government to wipe out who they perceive to be the dregs of society, aka the weak, the sick and the poor. Which isn’t necessarily that far off, as we witness a rich family agreeing to pay Eva a substantial amount of money so that they can cleanse their souls by honor killing their dying father (John Beasley).
Meanwhile, just outside the city limits, Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) have their own domestic issues. They are considering a separation, which Shane doesn’t want to tell his sister about, since that would make it all too real. After they have an odd (and scary) encounter with a member of a masked group of psychos prepping to begin purging, their car stalls in the middle of the highway. With only a few minutes before the commencement of the purge, they have no other option but to run, with the group of psychos in hot pursuit.
Throughout the film, we are introduced to three different levels of purgers. The first are the joyriders — those groups of people out to kill for no other reason than because it’s fun. The second group are the the anti-purgers, led by a man named Carmelo (Michael K. Williams), who set out to defy the rules of the purge by going after those who are supposed to be immune (or protected) under the law, including a money-laundering banker whom they string up outside of his bank. The third is a clandestine-style military force that hunts people out via the use of semi-trucks and high-tech computers that are tapped into the government’s communication infrastructure.
One of these trucks, led by “Big Daddy” (Jack Conley), attack a designated housing unit and drag Eva and Cali out into the street. It isn’t clear if they did this so that Big Daddy could kill them himself, or if there were other reasons why the men that stormed the building didn’t just kill them, but because of this delay, Eva and Cali are rescued by a police sergeant (Frank Grillo), purposefully cruising the streets to take revenge out on the man who killed his son a year earlier. (Of course, he never actually says this out loud until near the end of the film, but it’s obvious from the start, so it really doesn’t make much sense to hide it for that long). At the same time, Shane and Liz take refuge in the sergeant’s car, and as a group do what they can to survive the night.
The sergeant is very reminiscent of Ethan Hawke’s character in the first film, representing the moral dilemma most people face during the purge, which actually makes him one of the more interesting characters. But he still leaves a whole lot to be desired, as does almost every character in the film, who feel like nothing more than the dullest set of stock characters from hundreds of other movies. It seems that DeMonaco, for the most part, still hasn’t figured out how to add life to characters that are fighting for those very lives.
I will say that the expansion of the concept into the grander scale of the city is a major step in the right direction. If only they could have followed through on them in a way that had any substance. I mean, to witness a group of wealthy fat cats bidding to participate in a poor man’s version of The Running Man was an exciting aspect to the film that I would have liked to see more of in its most dangerous game style tactics. The idea behind the government-sanctioned trucks was also watered down to the point they became just another nuisance rather than an effective conspiracy-laden boogeyman.
Another idea that lost all traction toward the end of the film was the significance behind the anti-purge group. DeMonaco sets them up to be a major faction that will ultimately stop the purge, what with their internet tirades and ability to take over government transmissions to spread their message. Alas, by the end of the film, they were used as nothing more than a deus ex machina. We never learn whether their tactics worked, or if the government has (or will) fight back against them because they seem to be there for no other reason than to eventually save the lead characters. Not even the attack against one of the semi-trucks is mentioned beyond a quick reference, setting up a much grander idea that, once again, doesn’t pay off.
So even though The Purge: Anarchy takes us to the streets where the first one should have been, it still loses its edge by isolating its focus on the hunt for a small group of people that in the end, should have been simple pawns in a much grander story.Essentially, a good effort to make up for the limited commentary of the first film is wasted with a disjointed and underdeveloped attempt at representing such a sharp and provocative concept.
My Grade: B-
Next week, new movies include And So It Goes, Hercules and Lucy. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.