“The Purge: Anarchy” is an aptly named horror-thriller-action-science fiction hodgepodge that delivers on a level that the first film (last summer’s surprise box office hit “TThe Purge“) never even comes close to.
I’m not saying that this sequel is a great film. In fact, it gets rather formulaic at times and more than a few of its five main characters are a tad underdeveloped, but that ends up being okay considering who its target audience is. I’m pretty sure that the average moviegoer who forks over the ten bucks or so to see “The Purge: Anarchy” isn’t exactly looking for a well-balanced narrative that highlights significant character growth. I’d also bet a few shekels that these same moviegoers probably aren’t expecting a film with strong underlying subtext layered with hidden social and political agendas.
The funny thing is that “The Purge: Anarchy” does manage to offer up a little extra bonus to those that are willing to look for it.
Don’t get me wrong, the meaning behind the madness isn’t exactly subtle. I think if you were to sit down and have a one-on-one conversation with writer/director James DeMonaco (who also wrote and directed the first one), you’d most likely find out that this guy was anti-violence, anti-government, anti-establishment, and “anti” a lot of other things to boot.
See, at the core of all the blood, murder, mayhem and gore (in both films) lies a message begging to be found. That message is: Don’t put too much faith in your government officials or they’ll use that faith against you in order to increase the power they have over you. This core belief leads to the nihilistic, dystopian universe that exists within the fictitious society in both “The Purge” AND “The Purge: Anarchy.” This might seem impossible to comprehend in today’s peace-loving, “every kid gets a trophy” world, but what DeMonaco is telling us is that this nightmarish landscape is really just one step (and one political regime) away. Basically, these films are really just one, big anti-Republican ad campaign that puts the NRA on the same level as the devil itself. Like I said, these sentiments are not exactly subtle, but these days people need to be hit over the head.
The premise is simple. In this parallel “Purge” universe, a United States-based political party (I
assume they WERE Republicans) known simply as The New Founding Fathers of America (or NFFA) were thrust into office (although it’s never divulged whether they took over in a coup OR were actually voted in) in or around the year 2014 and quickly added a 28th Amendment to the Constitution which established the rules of what would eventually be known as “The Purge.”
Now, I won’t go into detail about all the specifics of this annual event. However, if YOU’D like to take the time to educate yourself, there’s a fantastic website created by the filmmakers that will get you up to speed. Just know that due to the NFFA’s vigilant attempts to battle an ever-increasing crime rate, as well as growing unemployment numbers, every year on a brisk evening in the month of March citizens now have the right to go outside and “purge” for a 12-hour period. This means that during this designated block, all crime and violence is legal and citizens are basically able to “unleash the beast” (actual “Purge” slang) on any poor unfortunate soul who happens to be wandering the streets during this timeframe. There is a catch though. Any house that displays the official “Purge” flower (a blue baptista) on its doorstep is therefore off limits and the inhabitants must be left alone. That being said, anyone who happened to see the first film knows that this “rule” isn’t always set in stone.
Speaking of the first film, I always thought that it was a wasted opportunity. The premise and mythology behind the world of “The Purge” is pretty creative and fairly well established and, if truth be told, actually quite intriguing. Before “The Purge” was released last summer, I read the synopsis of the film and found it too be an interesting concept. In fact, I was really looking forward to seeing the film, if only to see what kind of strange, new world DeMonaco had cooked up in his fictitious (and super-scary) version of an America run by a gaggle of militant Dick Cheney clones and Rush Limbaugh supporters.
That being said, the film didn’t deliver on any of its lofty promises. In the end, despite having
a talented cast (including Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey and Rhys Wakefield in a breakout role as the mega-creepy, ultra-polite leader of a group of masked preppy “purgers”), in addition to a healthy take at the box office (made for a budget of $3 million, it ended up making just under $90 million), the film was really nothing more than a glorified “cat-and-mouse,” home-invasion story. Needless to say, I was utterly and sadly disappointed by its banality and was ultimately left wondering what might have been if the film focused more on the anarchy occurring in the streets and less on what was going on in one suburban house… on one suburban street… in a small suburban corner of the country.
Well, with “The Purge: Anarchy” I literally got my wish.
I’d like to think that this second installment was the film that DeMonaco wanted to make in the first place. At a budget that’s three times as big as he had with the first film, “The Purge: Anarchy” is grander in scale an infinitely more ambitious than “The Purge” was.
Having said that, there are parts where there might be TOO much ambition going on with the story, as DeMonaco does his best to please the moviegoers (like me) who were expecting something much different with the first movie. In the second and third acts, DeMonaco ends up saturating the story with way too many unnecessary subplots; including the NFFA’s mysteriously evil and business-like mission to get more Americans to participate in “The Purge,” as well as a storyline involving a freedom fighter named Carmelo (played by Omar from “The Wire” himself, Michael K. Williams), which brings to mind the same mistake made by 1980’s Arnie flick “The Running Man” that kept a good film from becoming a classic one.
The opening act tries its damndest to establish sympathetic characters in a film in which 99.9%
of the moviegoers who end up seeing it won’t give a (you know what) about character development. I respect DeMonaco for taking the time to ATTEMPT to create three-dimensional personalities, because this ultimately ends up being fairly important to the story by the time the credits roll. Whether the audience knows it or not, killing off a character fails to resonate unless said character is fleshed-out in some way or another. It’s storytelling 101. So, all the complaints that were made by the young guys sitting behind me — that the film was slow and boring and didn’t get to the “The Purge” fast enough — must be taken with a grain of salt. Without the (minimal) character establishment in act one regarding the five main protagonists, the eventual “purging” that happens to them and around them would be meaningless.
Like I said, I’m not saying that this film is going to garner any Oscar attention OR end up being studied in NYC or USC film classes, but it was head-and-shoulders above what I expected it to be. Keeping this in mind, I can be secure in calling “The Purge: Anarchy” a good film for TWO REASONS.
Reason number one: The interesting mythology that intrigued me so much in the first film was finally brought to life and I was far from disappointed by the outcome. I had stated before that “The Purge: Anarchy” was aptly named and I wasn’t kidding. As the five main characters make their way from point A to Point B through a ruined, 2024 Los Angeles city landscape (at its core, if the first film was a “home invasion” movie, the second one is, what I like to call, a “quest” film), unspeakable horrors lie in wait for them at every turn.
Some of these “horrors” are more pronounced than others and some speed by in the background. Literally, there is a scene in which a flaming city bus makes a brief cameo in the backdrop… AND THE CHARACTERS BARELY NOTICE!! That’s how much “anarchy” is occurring in this film; flaming vehicles barely get a rise out of the characters involved OR the audience for that matter. However, there are quite a few scenes that portray nasty bouts of violent behavior. In fact, there is so much violence in this film that I became numb to it by the end — as did the characters in the film (and, AGAIN, the rest of my fellow moviegoers) as well.
Maybe that’s the point of all the violence — that anyone can get used to anything if they’re exposed enough to it. I have to give kudos to DeMonaco for this sentiment. Just like the rich folk that sacrifice citizens in their family room on Purge Night, in addition to the ultra-rich bastards who auction off innocent souls for their purging needs, moviegoers begin to accept this awful society that DeMonaco and his NFFA have created. We begin to take all the violence at face value and eventually put ourselves in the place of the “non-purgers” who are forced to kill, maim, and do what they must to survive the night. So, when a main character goes through so
much hurt, heartache and tragedy that they too have no choice but to ultimately state, “I want to stay. I wanna purge,” we feel it too. We end up purging right along with them. It’s as if DeMonaco allows us to bring our convictions and our innocence along for the ride, but when the choice is made to ignore them, we simply don’t mind. In the end, we understand what “purging” really means.
The second factor that allowed me enjoy this film was the actors who put in some genuine work. While DeMonaco’s camerawork was not without its flaws, some of this “work” put in by the film’s stars was. Let me just say, there were scenes in which DeMonaco adopted a steady-cam feel to the action and while I understand WHY he made this choice, it just made the narrative that much harder to follow.
This was especially the case during some of the scenes that were devoid of a major light source. I guess DeMonaco wanted to keep things au natural by not adding any extra lights, but the action suffered because of it. These choices might have been made with artistic merit in mind, but on a technical level, it mostly just made the scenes harder to comprehend. There were several moments in which I asked the person next to me, “What just happened?” Trust me, this is coming from someone who prides themselves on having keen, 20/20 vision, so if I was visually baffled, most people will be as well.
Okay, back to the acting. The five protagonists were well cast, as all of them held their weight when the going got tough AND also when the action ultimately rolled to a stop. This included an estranged couple who became stuck out on Purge Night after their car stalled (I know, I know, it’s a cliche, but it actually WORKS here) played by real-life couple Kiele Sanchez (“A Perfect Getaway”) and Zach Gilford (“The Last Stand”), as well as a mother-daughter combo who also become purge night prey that are played by British actress Carmen Ejogo and relatively new youngster Zoe Soul.
Truthfully though, if there WAS a weak link amongst the five “good guys,” it would have been Soul, although it was through no fault of her own. It’s her character that was flawed, as DeMonaco wrote her to be the politically and socially conscious individual in the group. However, she just ends up sounding like a whiny teenager and will inevitably become the character that some of the more boisterous audiences will yell obscenities at the screen towards and tell to STFU. You know the type, there’s one in every film like this.
However, it’s talented character actor Frank Grillo who ultimately steals the show… again.
It really seems like Grillo can do no wrong these days. Ever since his tour-de-force performance in “The Grey,” he’s been on my radar and with underrated, yet memorable supporting roles in films like “Disconnect,” “End of Watch” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” he’s remained on it.
In “The Purge: Anarchy,” Grillo gets a chance to shine (and kick ass) in a long overdue starring role and he doesn’t waste this opportunity. In fact, he makes the most of it as his gruff and tumble portrayal of a recently divorced man who starts out the night on a personal purge against the rich jerk who accidentally killed his son (and got away with it) during a drunk driving accident and ends up being the reluctant hero of the film. It’s Grillo who has to babysit the four aforementioned innocent “victims” during a particularly precarious Purge Night and even if his character blatantly channels the Marvel Comics’ badass The Punisher, it’s totally forgivable, because… well… Frank Grillo’s the one who’s responsible for it. I’m not sure if there are too many actors that could successfully pull off this role without it becoming too cartoonish or John McClane-esque. However, Grillo manages to do so.
I just hope they bring him back for the sequel.
And here’s hoping there is (another) sequel, because even it took DeMonaco a full film to make this positive change, you have to give him credit. He made the movie he didn’t want to make (“The Purge”) and achieved success and fame because of it. So, what does he do to follow it up? He listens to the critics of his first film, who claim that his film was boring and uninspired, and sets out to make the film he ORIGINALLY wanted to make for the sequel — even though it didn’t seem to be AS commercially viable.
However, the average American moviegoer is smarter than people give them credit to be. They might not bitch about plot holes, continuity issues, and character flaws like us critics do, but they DO know what they like… and they like good, hard-working heroes to be put in violent, perilous situations… no matter what kind of political views, relationship status, or family squabbles they happen to have.
And that’s why, in reality, the idea of a future regime like the NFFA taking control isn’t so far-fetched and THIS is what makes “The Purge: Anarchy” THAT much more terrifying.