Silver Screen: The Purge: Anarchy **1/2
If you ignore that it was in no way good, 2013’s The Purge is ideal sequel fodder. The star of the movie wasn’t top-billed familiar face Ethan Hawke, but rather the concept itself. Kill off any or all of the characters— the first film did away with plenty of them— and then move on to another story set in the dystopian near-future where America has solved both its crime and overpopulation problems by staging an annual Purge, a twelve-hour period during which all emergency services and laws are suspended.
The details of exactly how a Purge would fix both the economy and the crime rate are never explored beyond the simplistic notion that it would cull a fair percentage of the country’s poorest citizens, as well as somehow satiate the bloodlust of the rest of society. That the Purge de facto targets poorer people unable to fortify their homes and defend themselves was tangentially discussed in the first movie, which was more concerned with concocting an excuse for Ethan Hawke and his family to be trapped in their home and terrorized by a gang of killers. The result was tepid, a very vaguely subversive horror movie that used an overly elaborate backstory to justify a scenario already familiar from superior us-versus-the-intruders films like Panic Room, The Strangers, Straw Dogs, and the truly brutal Funny Games.
The Purge: Anarchy moves outside of a home under siege to explore the full spectrum of horrors taking place on the streets of downtown Los Angeles during the chaotic night. It also moves the social critique front and center. One of these changes turns out to have been a good idea.
Young couple Shane and Liz (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) are headed toward a safe spot when their car breaks down just as the Purge is about to commence. Eva (Carmen Ejogo), a waitress barely scraping by, lives with her ailing father (John Beasley) and teenage daughter Cali (Zoe Soul). Their plan to ride out the night in their secure apartment building goes awry when the old man ducks outside with a dark purpose in mind, just before a mysterious semi truck full of armored, heavily armed soldiers targets everyone in the building. Meanwhile, a nameless loner (Frank Grillo) with an arsenal, a souped-up car, and serious combat training joins the Purge to settle a personal score.
Eventually the ensemble of disparate survivors band together for survival. As they compare notes, they start identifying ominous trends: Gangs abducting people rather than killing them, more semis full of official-looking soldiers, and a sinister sense of purpose in what is supposed to be cathartic chaos. Cali suspects this is evidence of a broader Purge conspiracy hinted at in a series of internet videos posted by underground radical figure Carmelo (Michael K. Williams).
Series creator, writer, and director James DeMonaco is clearly a big John Carpenter fan. The first Purge bore a striking resemblance to Carpenter’s own 1976 building-under-siege thriller, Assault on Precinct Thirteen, not just because of the basic premise but for its wariness of authority and the limits of control, a tinge of liberal paranoia, and an antigun/antiviolence message propagated via a whole hell of a lot of guns and violence. (DeMonaco is actually credited as a screenwriter on the ineffectual, unnecessary 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct Thirteen, starring none other than Ethan Hawke.) Here DeMonaco shifts toward the more direct— or in this case, more blunt— social critique of Carpenter’s B-movie classic They Live.
Trouble is, DeMonaco doesn’t seem entirely sure what he wants to say. The movie bellows its most obvious insights but mutters the more specific ideas. The primary themes: America has an awful lot of guns, and the rich keep the poor fighting against one another to distract them from the greater iniquities. To convey these ideas, DeMonaco employs a hodgepodge of subversive iconography that conveys types rather than illuminating characters. Williams’s Carmelo barks fist-pumping rhetoric while speaking from grainy home-movie manifestos while wearing a hat and wire-frame glasses that make him look like the Black Panthers’ librarian. Fetish shots of guns are transposed with choral renditions of the National Anthem. Is the American flag unfurled ironically? Yes, it most assuredly is. The reverent tones used when characters speak about near-future America’s new leaders and Purge-purveyors, who call themselves the New Founding Fathers, make you wonder if the first victim of the Purge was self-awareness.
Most annoyingly, DeMonaco implies the beginnings of a peasant uprising but keeps shifting the action back to our harrowed crew, none of whom are terribly compelling with the exception of the appealing Grillo’s generically conflicted antihero, who at least exerts a little agency. While the first movie was homebound like a grounded teenager, the sequel finally breaks free into the action— and promptly follows all the wrong people. As for the broader plotline of conspiracies and uprisings, that’s all left dangling with a teaser for a third movie.
Only 364 shopping days left until the next Purge.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.