Film Review: The Purge: Anarchy

A modest but noticeable improvement on its predecessor, 'The Purge: Anarchy' offers a more effective--if still far from ideal--realization of the series' killer premise.

James DeMonaco's The Purge became one of last summer's surprise hits through a classic case of bait-and-switch. The early teasers and trailers sold audiences on a wild ride through a dystopian future where, for one 12-hour stretch, all crime—up to and including murder—is one hundred percent legal in the good ol' U.S. of A. What moviegoers actually got, however, was a lousy, low-budget home-invasion picture where the most interesting stuff always seemed to be happening outside of the walls of the movie's single setting.

Well aware that he can't pull the same stunt again and, more importantly, flush with (slightly more) cash thanks to the first movie's success, De Monaco is careful to spend the majority of The Purge: Anarchy out of doors, providing viewers with an extended street-level glimpse of what this annual bacchanal of violence is all about. That POV shift alone allows the sequel to handily surpass the original, but the writer-director has punched up the material in other ways as well, making room for a wider range of characters and forging more overt links between his allegorical America and present-day America. The Purge: Anarchy still isn't a great movie, but in its strongest moments it channels some of the blunt-force trauma of vintage exploitation cinema.

Where the first Purge embedded us amongst a pre-existing nuclear family (who aren't referenced at all in the new film), Anarchy tacks in another direction, creating a family out of a group of disparate individuals forced together by circumstance. It's one year after the previous Purge and, as the clock counts down to the start of the annual blood sport, the sane residents of Los Angeles are all scurrying to get indoors. Thus, single mom and waitress Eva (Carmen Ejogo) barricades herself in the grungy flat she shares with her teen daughter Cali (Zoë Soul) and her aged, sickly father (John Beasley), while estranged married couple Shane and Liz (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) navigate the downtown streets en route to his sister's house—at least until their car breaks down, at which point they race madly on foot looking for any available sanctuary. One person not seeking shelter is armed-to-the-teeth vigilante Leo (Frank Grillo), who intends to spend the next 12 hours carrying out one very specific mission of vengeance.

Those plans are waylaid, though, when he spots Eva and Cali being dragged out of their apartment and about to be purged and—against his better judgment—opts to get involved. While Leo's off playing hero, Liz and Shane sneak into his armored ride and refuse to leave when he returns with mother and daughter in tow. Unwilling to let the one person with the firepower and tactical know-how necessary to survive the night ditch them out in the open, the four contrive a reason to stick close to this mystery man, embarking on a cross-town journey scored to screams and gunfire and consisting of several deadly detours.

By switching the setting from an upper-class suburban enclave to a dingier downtown locale and casting Hispanic actresses in prominent roles, DeMonaco signals that he's ready to tackle head-on an aspect of his premise that was less prominent in the first installment. That is, while the Purge has been marketed by future America's leaders—the so-called "New Founding Fathers"—as a legal way for every citizen to blow off some steam, it's actual function is to allow the country's reactionary white establishment to cull the ever-expanding minority population. In the previous Purge, this idea manifested itself in the fact that the person the well-off white family staked their home and lives to protect was black.

Unfortunately, that individual was largely presented as a voiceless victim, when he was onscreen at all; in contrast, Eva and Cali are clearly defined, if not necessarily deep, characters and serve as the audience's surrogates throughout. DeMonaco hasn't completely learned from his past mistakes, however, as both women routinely depend for both safety and marching orders on a white male—namely Leo, whose five o'clock shadow, trench coat and giant machine gun cause him to resemble nothing less than a dystopian version of the Punisher (and come to think of it, were Marvel to reboot that character again, Grillo would be a great choice). Cali and Eva may be the main targets of the Purge, but the Purge movies still insist on making white dudes the stars.

Fortunately, Anarchy makes several other additions to the franchise's established mythology that more successfully embellish its social and political commentary. Early on, for example, we're informed about "martyrs"—elderly and infirm (especially, again, those hailing from minority backgrounds) citizens who sell their lives to rich Purgers eager to kill in private in exchange for large sums of money deposited in the accounts of their surviving family members. DeMonaco also takes us to a hunting party, where unlucky victims are auctioned off to be stalked and shot by champagne-swilling fat cats. And the hint of a larger government conspiracy hangs in the air as well, as squads of well-armed, well-armored soldiers patrol the streets in large, unmarked white trucks, finding targets with the aid of federally controlled traffic cameras. The latter plot point feels like table-setting for a third Purge, especially since the writer-director goes out of his way to make the point that there's a newly risen insurgent army—one led by a Malcolm X-like figure played by “The Wire”’s Michael K. Williams—that may be combating the New Founding Fathers…or collaborating with them.

None of this is especially subtle, but then again, neither were the movies that DeMonaco is obviously inspired by, movies with attention-grabbing titles like Hell Up in Harlem and Fighting Mad that blazed on the sides of Times Square marquees in the ’70s. The reason those films proved popular with audiences and certain critics was that they directly confronted timely, emotionally charged subjects that mainstream features all too often seemed tongue-tied talking about. In their inelegant way, the Purge movies are scarily attuned to the various fault lines coursing through American society right now, whether it's the widening income gap, the changing faces and demographics of the electorate, the centralization of news, or the proponents of gun culture drowning out the voices favoring gun control. On several occasions in Anarchy, we hear a character exclaim "It's my right!" before using their firearms to carry out a government-sanctioned Purge—a phrase that deliberately echoes the rhetoric used by advocates of "open-carry" gun laws.

If only DeMonaco's filmmaking were as skillful as his rabble-rousing! The Purge was rendered almost unwatchable at times thanks to the director's poor aptitude for spatial geography and jigsaw cutting style. And while working on a larger canvas allows for a less monotonous mise-en-scène, his ability to cleanly choreograph a scene, be it an action sequence or a dialogue-driven moment, hasn't improved much in the past year. This universe that he's created cries out for a rough-edged stylist/shock artist like John Carpenter or Jack Hill, someone who can more successfully marry the series' prescient futurecasting with polished entertainment value. As a franchise, The Purge doesn't lack for strong ideas—what it needs is an equally strong creative vision.

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