Having decided to sit through all three movies (so far) of The Purge franchise, I might as well get them out of the way in short order. Last night, after returning home from a night out with the wife, that included a trip to Best Buy to try Sony’s Playstation VR, I settled down to watch the second in the series: The Purge: Anarchy.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the first in the series. It was decent, but no more than that, and premise aside it came off more of a standard action thriller, with the story having more in common with David Fincher’s Panic Room than anything in the horror genre. In it, successful home security salesman James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) must defend his family when a group of people show up at his home with killing and mayhem on their minds. The premise of the franchise is that following an unspecified takeover of the US, the “new Founding Fathers” created “The Purge” that allows the stressed out, violent culture of the US to blow off steam for 12 hours once a year in which all crime is legal, including murder. In my review of the first movie, I described the premise as silly, which it is. The movie takes place in the immediate future, which for me is too close for this concept to really gain much traction. Nevertheless, the premise is what it is, and many movies have worse conceits. The interesting thing about the premise is that The Purge appears to work, and the US is not sliding into a dystopia, nor is it a heavy-handed allegorical cautionary tale.
In The Purge: Anarchy, which takes place the year after the first movie, the premise remains unaltered. Another year, another Purge. This time with a different storyline and a different set of characters, fronted by Frank Grillo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War) playing a capable man on a mission to use the freedoms of the Purge to take revenge on the man who killed his young son. Things don’t go according to plan when he saves a mother and daughter from execution, and an estranging couple who are caught up in the events of the night. Not much of spoiler here, because unfortunately, this is the bulk of the story. If I can say anything positive about the story, it’s that returning writer/director James DeMonaco went bigger in scope than the first time around, but that’s it, really. The first movie has more going for it in the story department too, with a smaller cast of characters. The stakes are smaller, but the more intimate closeness of the family unit magnifies them in context. In The Purge: Anarchy, much of that is removed. The estranged couple are written and performed with a bland vagueness about them that made me question why DeMonaco thought them compelling enough for the movie, and while the mother-daughter combo are more interesting, there’s as little character development for these two throughout the movie as there is for the other couple. The plucky daughter has the most dynamic personality of all the characters, including that of Grillo, but it’s wasted in a series of repetitive “I told you to shut up!” moments between her and Grillo.
In terms of actual story, DeMonaco switches the action from Sandin’s locked-down suburban mansion to the nighttime streets of LA, deserted but for those out to Purge. In terms of plot, the franchise goes from Panic Room to The Warriors, as Grillo finds himself in the position of leading these four to safety through a city wrapped up in the chaos of The Purge while trying to stay mindful of his revenge mission. It doesn’t really work. There are lots of gun battles, but a couple of transitional scenes that are meant to break the action up feel forced and not conceptualized all that well, and the second of these scenes in particular is a rushed attempt to throw all of the satire of the premise into one bite-sized chunk, but it’s far too heavy handed and plays like a cheesy 80s action movie that might have featured Michael Pare in the Grillo role. And so far as the title goes, Anarchy seemed like an odd choice. If The Purge itself is not anarchy, there are no actual examples of anarchy in the movie whatsoever! And if The Purge is the anarchy of the title, the title itself becomes redundant.
There are two ill-conceived subplots that play up the satirical aspect – one is a revolutionary movement that sees through the stated intent of The Purge and aims to bring it down, but it comes off as inauthentic and facile, especially when Grillo’s team inevitably meets up with them at the end of act 2. The second subplot is a real clunker, especially because it completely removes the ambiguity of the revolution, which was just a dumb choice – especially because it’s delivered in the form of a brief expository speech by a character who didn’t really need to be in the movie in the first place. Very poor writing here.
So what’s good about it? Not much, really. It’s mostly a plodding, serviceable action movie. One scene does contain some misdirection as it ties back to a scene in act 1. I liked that it attempted to turn that earlier scene on its head, but DeMonaco could have done a better job with it. That’s mostly a fair thing to say about the entire movie, actually: that it all could have been better – though probably not by much. The very conceit of The Purge is restrictive all by itself.
The one thing I enjoyed about it was Grillo’s performance. For someone who’s pretty much an action star reminiscent of those 80s movies, he does have a strong screen presence and I like the subtly of his technique. When I watched him last night, I thought that if Jon Bernthal hadn’t been cast as The Punisher in Netflix’s Daredevil, season 2, Grillo would have been an excellent alternative.
Oh well, I guess I can only wrap the review by saying “Onward to The Purge: Election Day”!