The Purge: Anarchy returns us to that nightmare vision of America in which “The New Founding Fathers” decree that for one night a year, all crime (including murder) is legal. This time, however, instead of one family’s ordeal within their home, we follow a would-be vigilante, a married couple stranded in the slaughterhouse of downtown, and a mother and her daughter from the projects, as they all collide in a desperate bid to escape the worst maniacs and predators roaming the streets.
But as the night of horrors wears on, the vigilante and his charges begin to realize that The Purge is about much more than the primal release people celebrate. As they begin to understand the designs and intentions behind the blood and chaos, the rag-tag group of survivors find themselves on the front lines of a social revolution.
The first Purge used a scaled-down setting and intriguing (or stupid, depending how you feel) premise to create a flawed but ultimately thrilling story about complacency and social inequality in the vein of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”. Well, writer/director James DeMonaco returns to script and direct this sequel, which attempts to blow the doors of The Purge open into a wider look at both the mayhem and larger socio-political ideas involved with this savage ritual. The end result is another B-movie thriller that keeps things tense and somewhat satisfying moment-to-moment; however, a birds-eye view of the story, characters and themes at work in Anarchy quickly reveals just how thin and nonsensical this sequel is underneath all the fright and carnage.
Visually, DeMonaco once again excels at building tension and then executing (no pun) thrilling action/horror encounters. Unlike the first film – where the single-setting format created a sense of restricted and repetitive movement - Anarchy‘s bigger setting allows for a more traditional, linear, dark odyssey thriller that actually works in the film’s favor. The combination of tight urban streets, dark alleyways and cramped apartment complexes allows DeMonaco to stage a fun mix of both scare and action sequences. That’s about the best thing The Purge: Anarchy has going for it: the non-stop pace and tension tends to propel you through the mess that is this story.
It’s whenever the thrills relax into slower sections of paper-thin pontificating that The Purge: Anarchy‘s reach far exceeds its grasp. Woven into the not-so-sub-text is a sloppy revenge fantasy aimed at the Occupy crowd, which boggles the mind with contradictions between its preachy message and the onscreen carnage. This is a movie in which the those fighting against a culture of gun violence and economic inequality run amok pump as many bullets into as many bodies as the alleged bad guys do. It’s righteous revolution to the tune of an AK-47; as an attempt at serious commentary, The Purge: Anarchy is pretty much laughable.
Frank Grillo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) once again proves to be a solid character actor – and in this case, an effective leading man. He’s rough, tough, yet gruffly sensitive and witty too. There will likely be more center stage roles in his future. Real-life couple Zach Gilford (The Last Stand) and Kiele Sanchez (The Glades) get a suitable arc as a troubled married couple targeted by a group of teenage hunters. Sure, it’s your basic cliche slasher movie setup (troubled couple reconciles through tribulation), but it’s a relatively solid subplot to the film, nonetheless.
Not so solid is the story arc involving poor waitress Eva Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo), her politically radical daughter, Cali (Zoë Soul) and Eva’s father, Papa Rico (John Beasley). The film positions Eva as the first (ergo, the main) character we encounter – yet she never develops beyond being the rattled dead-weight member of the crew. Conversely, Cali is the stereotypical horror movie character whose questionable logic makes you roll your eyes. While Soul tries to infuse, well, soul into her critically minded youth, speaking with a child’s earnestness and naiveté - in the context of a horror movie – just makes you look like easy pickings. It’s not an endearing quality. Beasley’s presence is truly pointless, and aside from being hollow vehicles to inspire Grillo’s character development, Eva and Cali are not characters who ever seem to justify their presence in the narrative.
Other character actors like Jack Conley (Fast & Furious), Michael K. Williams (Boardwalk Empire), Justina Machado (Six Feet Under) and Noel Gugliemi (Training Day) show up for some pivotal cameo roles – along with a few other players who are best left to surprise.
In the end, The Purge: Anarchy is a step down from the original in terms of narrative (and that’s saying something), but the basic promise of the series – thrills, kills, and mayhem – is still fulfilled in satisfying fashion. Some people may find the raucous, half-cooked political overtones rousing, but many others will find them silly and distracting. However, the mix of lofty (but dunderheaded) social critiques and freaky mayhem is what The Purge franchise is all about, for better or worse – and even as diluted product, Anarchy is still a bit of guilty pleasure fun.