The Purge: Anarchy, the sequel to last year’s surprise hit The Purge, improves on its predecessor by taking audiences out into the streets and into the chaos that was only hinted at in the first film. It’s a well-constructed, entertaining and harrowing journey into a nightmare vision of a dystopian future America that holds your attention from beginning to end despite the absence of expensive special effects or real box office star power in front of the camera.
In case you missed the first film, don’t worry: the details about what “The Purge” is and how it works are all provided in the first few minutes. In 2023 America, the crime rate is below 1%. Unemployment has dropped to historic lows and a record number of Americans are all living above the poverty line. The reason for this prosperity? The annual “Purge”, conceived and implemented by the “New Founding Fathers of America” (NFFA) and made legal by the passing of the 28th Amendment to the Constitution, which calls for a 12-hour period where all manner of crime is legal. Starting on March 22nd of every year at 7pm, all emergency services (police, fire, paramedic) are suspended, and citizens may exercise their gonstitutionally-granted right to roam the streets committing all manner of atrocities in order to “purge” aggressive and violent thoughts and inclinations. The only rules are that government officials of a particular stature are off-limits to purgers, and purgers’ chosen weapons and explosive may not exceed a particular level of destructive force.
Sounds like a great night to be out and about on the town, doesn’t it?
On the particular government-sanctioned night of Hell on Earth featured in The Purge: Anarchy, five people — struggling young couple Shane and Liz (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez), mother and daughter Eva and Cali (Carmen Ejogo and Zoë Soul), and Leo (Frank Grillo), a grieving father who takes to the streets armed to the teeth with payback on his mind, find themselves thrown together by circumstance and forced to work together in order to survive Purge night. Before the siren that signals the end of the Purge sounds at 7am, they’ll face gangs of thugs armed with guns and blades, machine gun toting paramilitary troops, ordinary civilians using the Purge in order to settle scores and slights among friends and family, and even tycoons and wealthy families paying to have victims delivered into the safety of their homes and clubs so that they can “purge” without fear of endangering themselves. All so that for the other 364 days of the year, the Americans that survive the Purge can live in relative peace and prosperity. Sound far-fetched? Just think about how far we as a society are willing to go in today’s America to ensure our own safety, security, and personal wealth are secure, and just how little empathy is valued at times in our world, and the America of the Purge might seem a little less unrealistic.
Writer/director James DeMonaco, who also wrote and directed the first Purge film, takes the opportunity that a larger budget affords to expand the scope of the film in order to give audiences a good, long look at what Purge Night looks and feels like in the midst of all the mayhem from the point of view of average, low-to-middle class citizens, the people who can’t afford elaborate home security systems and thus tend to not survive the night. His script also takes into account the possibility that not everyone in America is happy with the new status quo and the government’s rationale for the Purge, and that some are even fighting back.
It’s clear that DeMonaco wants to do what he did with the first film — spark thought and conversation after audiences leave the theater — on a much larger scale, and for the most part, his efforts should be successful. After all, it’s a pretty compelling question: What would you do if “The Purge” was real? Barricade yourself inside your home and wait it out? Take to the streets with a bat or a machete or a pistol and exorcise your personal demons? Throw a “Purge” party for all your friends, or better still, all the folks you’re secretly holding a grudge against and then poison the punch? Think about it.
As a whole, the casting in the film works well, in particular Frank Grillo (Zero Dark Thirty, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), whose solid performance as the hardened-by-grief Leo should put him on casting directors’ radar for leading man roles in bigger action movies and thrillers in the years to come. The rest of the ensemble — Gilford, Sanchez, Ejogo, and Soul — all turn in strong, believable performances as they display the full range of emotions one might expect to feel when faced with the Purge’s terrifying conditions: fear, paralysis, desperation, and even rage. Their collective roller coaster ride of emotion provides an effective counterbalance for Grillo’s character’s steely calm and deadly resolve. There are no over-the-top performances among the principals here, and that serves the film and its goals very well.
Is it a great film? No. But coming as it does from Blumhouse Productions, the studio that’s brought audiences the Paranormal Activity and Insidious films, and from Platinum Dunes, the studio created in part by Michael Bay that has specialized in re-making horror classics such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, The Purge: Anarchy should stand apart as relatively well-conceived and executed cinema. It’s engrossing and thought-provoking, and in the end, how many films in this day and age from the thriller and horror genres can you really say that about?
Not very many.
Score: 3 out of 5
The Purge: Anarchy
Starring Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez and Michael K. Williams. Written and directed by James DeMonaco.
Running Time: 104 minutes
Rated R for strong disturbing violence, and for language.
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