Broader satire and a bigger canvas make for major improvement in 'The Purge: Anarchy'
The Purge: Anarchy Universal Pictures
Director: James DeMonaco
Screenplay: James DeMonaco
Starring: Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zoë Soul, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez and Michael K. Williams
Rated R / 1 hour, 43 minutes
July 18, 2014
(out of four)
If the Purge movies have taught me anything, it's that The Purge: Anarchy is probably as good as this series is ever going to get. Or rather, as good as it's going to allow itself to get.
In two entries so far, writer/director James DeMonaco has proven he doesn't totally get the implications of his own premise, even though there's clearly an awareness of what it's supposed to mean. But in his second go-around, DeMonaco finds a way to split the difference, crafting a loony crime drama that gets the allegorical message across in broad strokes without ever having to worry about the finer points.
It's the smart play, if only because the franchise hasn't proven smart enough to actually milk the premise for what it's truly worth. Better to manage expectations than prove yourself woefully out of your depth, as last year's original The Purge did so thoroughly. As I wrote in my review of that film, the way the premise is presented contradicts the very idea it's trying to get across. The commentary fundamentally revolves around wealthy exploitation of the poor, and of the circumstances that cause crime in the first place - a position undermined by the conceit that a single annual night of legalized crime actually drops national crime rates to microscopic levels.
Anarchy actually takes it even farther, informing us that the annual Purges - the brainchild of The New Founding Fathers of America, who of course are exempt from any crimes being committed against them on Purge night - have dramatically dropped the American poverty rate. That's what happens when the rich can kill the poor with impunity once a year. Tellingly, DeMonaco avoids the inherent questions that come along with that, instead drawing a broad satire in which the Purge is an excuse for the wealthy to kill the less fortunate purely for sport - and do so without any risk to themselves, of course, as they use their considerable means to secure every possible advantage in equipment and safety.
A few people volunteer for the dubious honor of being sacrificed, in exchange for a large cash payment they can leave to their families. But for the most part, those unsecured or on the streets are rounded up by hired hands in SWAT gear, and brought to the feet of the upper classes for their amusement. It's certainly not subtle, but what good would moderation do? DeMonaco aims to pillory a system of economic and social injustice; the more savage the 1 percent can be, the funnier and more damning Anarchy gets.
Issues of wealthy entitlement and inequality were present in the previous film as well, represented by its central antagonists, a group of yuppies in prep-school jackets hunting down a poor black man in the middle of suburbia. The sequel takes everything farther, and in fact seems to go out of its way to change the formula. While the first movie was set almost entirely in one location, Anarchy goes aggressively in the other direction, changing its setting every few minutes. The characters are constantly on the run (rather than barricaded in their own home, as was the case with Ethan Hawke and Co. in the original), and each scenario seems to reveal new wrinkles about this 2023 version of America. (Although it's hard to take its attempted commentary on gun violence seriously when guns seem to solve every problem in every scene of the movie.)
DeMonaco, who wrote and directed both films, has grander ambitions as a whole this time. There's a jittery apocalyptic feeling that sets in inside the abandoned city streets as a temporary war zone - government-sanctioned for 12 hours only - materializes seemingly out of nowhere. From the anxious grinding and melancholy strings of Nathan Whitehead's score to the metallic blue palette of DeMonaco's interstitial tracking shots of the city skyline, the film feels like a direct descendant of The Dark Knight Rises.
Only one of our central characters is in these streets by choice - that would be the Sergeant (Frank Grillo), who's out with a fully armored car and a full armory of weapons not to kill the innocent but to get revenge on the guilty. It just so happens that, good man that he truly is, he winds up doing more protecting than avenging. Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and her teenage daughter Cali (Zoë Soul) were nearly snagged out of their apartments by Purgers before the Sergant came along and saved them, while on-the-outs couple Shane and Liz (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) had the bad fortune of having their car break down on the absolute wrong night. They take refuge in the back seat of the Sergeant's car, and he - despite his more primal instincts - allows them to stick around under his protection.
The film adds other elements to flesh out its future - namely Michael K. Williams' character, Carmelo Jones, a social justice advocate and revolutionary whose online videos (shot with Robert Richardson-like beams of white light) have made him an underground hero. Williams is customarily good (in a limited role), but Grillo is the standout. Frank Grillo, quite simply, should be a movie star. If his great supporting turns in the likes of Warrior and The Grey didn't prove it already, The Purge: Anarchy should. His screen presence is a given, but what I like so much is the effortless and gentle sense of humanity, even emotionality, that he exudes even in roles built around his raw masculinity and stoicism. I don't know why it's taken Hollywood so long to figure out how to use him - or if it even has yet.
The various new elements allow Anarchy a sense of narrative and thematic dexterity its predecessor lacked, and DeMonaco does a fine job squeezing a pretty decent B-level thriller out of this material. It's well-paced, well-performed, silly, surprising and derivative, all in about equal measure. And it kinda works. Just as long as you take the movie's lead and don't think about any of it too deeply.