An immense step-up from the original, if nothing else, The Purge: Anarchy is a trashy, violent and disposable B-movie.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
2013’s The Purge was one of the most frustratingly terrible movies to come along in damn good long while. The golden premise: it’s the near-future and the United States government has been overtaken by a party dubbed The New Founding Fathers. Under their stead, crime is down to an all-time low, poverty is near non-existent and the country is in an economic boom. Their secret? The Purge: an annual event where, for one twelve hour period, all crime is legal. The idea being that the citizens of America can let out all of their frustrations without fear of reprisal, getting it all out of their system, but in reality it seems a lot like the rich get to use the night to switch their figurative preying on the lower-classes into literal preying on the lower-classes. You could have touched on so much with this excellent premise and The Purge used it for… a home invasion horror movie.
That is not just blowing a fantastic premise; that is actively wasting my time. And it wasn’t even a good home invasion horror movie! It had no characters, nothing new or interesting to add to the home invasion sub-genre, nothing to say despite having a premise ripe for social commentary and satire and, most damningly, it wasn’t even the least bit scary. Fortunately, the goldmine premise got out unscathed and I was willing to give this second go-around the benefit of the doubt before seeing it. So, the good news: The Purge: Anarchy is an immense step-up from the first film. It has “character arcs” and something to say and actually decides to explore its premise in an attempt to get its message across. The bad news: the film’s writing still isn’t particularly good and, at the times when this pulpy and trashy action flick decides it wants to pay lip service to its horror roots for a brief moment, it’s still pathetically non-terrifying.
Taking place on The Sixth Annual Purge, we take to the streets of Los Angeles to follow a group of five people. There’s a husband and wife (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) who, on their way to her sister’s house to wait out the purge and announce their separation, get stranded outside when a roving gang of masked psychos tamper with their car, having designated them as their prey for the evening. There’s a nameless man (Frank Grillo) who has chosen to take part in The Purge in order to take revenge on the man who killed his son. And then there’s a woman and her younger sister (Carmen Ejogo and Zoë Saul) who were safely locked inside their home until what looks a lot like a government death squad shows up to cart them away, most likely for a spot of murdering. Circumstances bring the five folks together and the nameless man (who, let’s not mince words here, is basically The Punisher) takes pity on the civilians enough to try and get them to safety, whilst still hoping for enough time in the night to be able to get his revenge.
Right, first things first, this is not The Purge Again. Whilst the first film was a horror, this one is a schlocky action flick with the occasional jump scare (I counted five total and they all prove, beyond all reasonable doubt, that writer/director James DeMonaco is utterly abysmal at crafting scares). That means that you can expect lots of blood, a tight and fast pace, competent but not mind-blowing or original action scenes, and a conspicuously constrained budget (seriously, for a film with Anarchy right in the damn title, there seems to be very little anarchy on the streets of Los Angeles). It is what it is, a pulpy b-movie. It’s not going to set any worlds on fire and it’s not an especially high quality b-movie, either, but it is good at what it does.
For one, there are actual characters and character arcs, this time. Whereas The Purge had static one-dimensional characters at best, Anarchy has clear definitions in its cast, individual characteristics if you will, and, and you may want to hold onto your head for this bit because I may just blow your mind here, actual character arcs! Characters start the movie in one place and then come out of the end of the night as legitimately changed people for whom their experiences have had a positive or negative effect upon! I know that this comes across as damning with faint praise, and that’s because it is, but the total lack of this stuff in the first film makes its appearance here all the more noticeable. Helping matters is that Frank Grillo is actually really good in the lead role. He has a very expressive face that also permanently looks weary, as if he is just completely tired of this sh*t at every opportunity. He imbues his character with charisma and he puts effort into his performance, when it comes time for his pivotal scene I was genuinely surprised by how interested I was in proceedings purely down to his full interest. The rest of the main cast get the job done, acting scared and out-of-their-depth most all the time, and the side cast get to indulge in their hammiest impulses, but Grillo is the draw, here.
As for the action, it is pretty good. Again, it is noticeably constrained by the miniscule (by Hollywood standards) $9 million budget, but DeMonaco does have a very good grasp of how to stage and shoot an action sequence. Remember that bit in the first film where Ethan Hawke fought off three of the masked intruders in a scene that was absolutely ridiculous given the context of the film it occurred in and the characters it happened to, but was at least admittedly decently shot and well-staged? Add a bit, but not an incomprehensible amount, of shaky-cam to that and you have Anarchy’s action scenes. Grillo’s (I’m just going to keep calling him by his actor’s name because he goes nameless for the whole film bar one little reveal) initial takedown of the death squad van is pretty cool and there’s a pretty good scene where the group are heading down a subway tunnel whilst pursued by crazed maniacs riding ATVs wielding flamethrowers, but proceedings don’t start approaching tense and great until the final sequence, in which the group is thrown into a hunting ground and forced to survive. If DeMonaco was willing to be a bit more original in the execution of said scenario, it could have been a very memorable and original scene. Instead, it’s basically what you’re expecting, but it’s a pretty damn good one, if nothing else.
You could throw the originality argument at the rest of the film, too, if you wanted, but at least DeMonaco really does actually do stuff with his million dollar idea, this time. Anarchy takes on a kind of episodic structure, where its cast wander into and out of various different scenarios that showcase various different aspects of The Purge and life on Purge night. You can probably figure out most of the scenarios without even seeing a second of the film and, yes, they all do still involve murder in some way (annoyingly), but the film gains something by not fixating for too long on any one bit. It gains pace, for one, direction, for another, and it all ends up building into the film’s overall message. A much better film would probably have found scenarios that don’t always end in blood and guts, but the film still does enough to make it not feel like my time is actively being wasted. People selling their lives to the wealthy during The Purge, psychopaths justifying their actions with scripture and how The Purge is their God-given right, non-Purge households, the possibility that maybe people aren’t actually as into The Purge as the government likes to claim they are… stuff like that and it’s all executed strongly if a bit uninspiring.
And it all feeds into the film’s overall message. Yes, Anarchy is an angry film and wants to say something with that something being this: “F*ck capitalism.” And, by Jove, is it not in the slightest bit subtle about it. Remember that bit in the first film where the preppy kid in the blazer stood in front of the camera and literally went on about how The Purge is his right because he is rich and the lower-class are scum and all that for a good two and a bit minutes? No? Well, here’s a brief reminder link for you. Seen it? OK, now, take that one scene, stretch it out for 103 minutes, and you have Anarchy’s message, with a bit of general anti-gun stuff for good measure. This is a film that quite literally has a sequence in which a woman with a redneck accent stands on top of a building, firing her assault rifle in the air and screaming through a megaphone about how she is “the left hand of God” and how purging is “her god given, constitutional right”. This is a film that quite literally has Michael Kenneth Williams burst in at one point and scream “F*CK THE NEW FOUNDING FATHERS, F*CK YOUR MONEY, AND MOTHERF*CK THE PURGE!!” This is a film in which every single member of the oppressed lower class is represented by a person of colour and every single member of the entitled and predatory upper class is represented by a white person, most often old.
Subtle is not Anarchy’s way of doing things, and I applaud it wanting to, and being so eager to, say something, if nothing else. There are only two problems. 1] I don’t think you’re going to find any member of your target audience who doesn’t already subscribe to your “f*ck capitalism” newsletter, movie. Sorry to disappoint. 2] The writing of this stuff is bad. Instead of having these ideas predominately come up through detail and world-building and such (you know, organically), Anarchy brings them up near-exclusively by having characters outright state the themes of the movie and how bad everything is. At one point, an evil character rationalises their life choices by outright stating multiple times that they’re doing it for the money. The upper class quote scripture before commencing killing. Michael Kenneth Williams, incidentally, plays the leader of the resistance who plan to use The Purge against the New Founding Fathers and he gets a lot of screen time. Screen time used to A) speechify about just how evil the NFF are and how abhorrent the idea of The Purge is and B) to walk around with a giant neon sign that reads “WE WILL PAY THIS OFF IN THE SEQUEL”. Look, I understand that some anvils need to be dropped and all that, but it takes strong writing to not make it feel like I’ve spent the last 100 minutes being lectured about the obvious (see Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes for what happens when you pair that path with strong writing) and the writing here is, well, barely B-movie quality, to be honest. Yes, movie, I know that capitalism sucks and that the wealthy prey on the poor to make themselves richer. I’ve known that for a while, actually. Have you got anything else you’d like to talk about? Or at least find a more nuanced way to get your message across?
But, eh, I can’t complain too much. The Purge: Anarchy is a trashy B-movie and it’s good at what it does. I still don’t think that The Purge concept is being used to its fullest potential, but if pulpy violence is the way we’re going to go down then Anarchy does a damn fine job at making the most of it given the restrictions. If nothing else, it’s a monumental step-up from the terrible first film because this one is at least good at what it does and the resistance idea seems like something that genuinely will be properly paid off in the sequel. There is a great movie in The Purge somewhere and this one gives me hope that we may reach it a lot sooner than expected. As it stands currently, Anarchy is a good trashy B-movie. I can think of a lot worse ways to pass the time.
Callum Petch needs someone to love when the chips are down. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!