THE PURGE: ANARCHY * * 1 / 2
Starring Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez and Michael K. Williams. Written and directed by James DeMonaco.
Last summer’s sleeper hit The Purge was a particularly frustrating experience, baiting the audience with a killer hook before sheepishly backing off into a garden-variety, run-of-the-mill home invasion genre exercise. You’ll probably recall that the film posited a not-too-distant future where poverty, street crime and unemployment had been rapidly reduced by America’s “New Founding Fathers,” ever since they’d instituted an annual holiday during which everything’s legal for one twelve hour period.
The idea being that our country’s rotten tendencies can all be cathartically expelled within this single evening of wanton destruction, and then everybody gets it all out of their system and goes back to business as usual on Monday.
The movie hinted around but never quite confronted the concept that it was morning in America again because The Purge was killing off all the poor. Presumably for budgetary reasons, writer-director James DeMonaco restricted the scope to a single McMansion where yuppie dickhead Ethan Hawke tried to keep a bunch of malevolent prep school kids from fileting his family. Reasonably well-crafted for what it was, the film still disappointed because it flushed a novel premise down the hopper in favor of our umpteenth variation on Straw Dogs and Home Alone.
This quickie sequel, dashed off in the wake of The Purge’s surprise success with an only ever-so-slightly more generous budget, at least gets away from that gated community and begins exploring the larger world DeMonaco only teased the first time around. The Purge: Anarchy takes it to the streets, stranding a quartet of defenseless innocents in the darkness on the edge of town, where prowling mobs of young cyclists in creepy-ass masks are hell bent on a long night of rape and plunder. Gangs linger eerily at the corners of the frame in bizarre getups, probably because DeMonaco has seen The Warriors just as many times as we have.
Their only salvation is a Man With No Name, occasionally referred to as Sergeant. Played by our great unheralded character actor Frank Grillo, he’s a lone wolf badass in a long black coat, packing an arsenal and driving around in an armored muscle-car. He’s got his own plans for the evening, none of them good, but can’t stop himself from rescuing these strays and helping them make it through the night, probably because he’s seen The Outlaw Josey Wales just as many times as we have.
Grillo is magnificent. He’s been my new favorite “Hey, That Guy!” bit player for some time now, walking away with scenes in The Grey, the otherwise risible Disconnect, and he even maintained his dignity while getting his ass handed to him in an elevator by Captain America. Frank Grillo has an easy, unforced masculinity that lends lived-in authenticity to underwritten parts, and he makes a mint from the bare bones he’s given here, especially since he’s basically playing The Punisher.
But what makes The Purge: Anarchy interesting is that the real enemies are not the head-clubbing street gangs nor any stray rapists who are bound to become Grillo’s bullet fodder. No, the problem here is the 1% — presented as ghastly gargoyles in tuxedoes and pearls – buying the lives of the underclass for luxury slaughters at sicko auctions and such. An underground media prophet played by Michael K. Williams (Omar Comin’) sees the new government’s complicity in all of this and is trying to stoke a revolution on the one night they can all get away with it. You’ll end up resenting the movie for not spending more time with him.
Arriving during the summer of Snowpiercer, The Purge: Anarchy’s depiction of class warfare can’t help but suffer in comparison. Having scripted the 2005 not-bad remake of Assault on Precinct 13, DeMonaco has already proven his John Carpenter bonafides, and this is nothing if not a trim, satisfying little meat-and-potatoes exploitation picture. But it’s tough not to wish that he’d pushed it further. The sequences involving the twisted rich are so disturbing and indignant, you keep hoping the movie will get bigger, louder and more cathartic.
Alas, it stays on an even keel. Moderately impressive while never truly incendiary, The Purge: Anarchy isn’t a bad film. I just want Paul Verhoven to direct the next one.