The Purge: Anarchy (2014) / Thriller-Action

MPAA Rated: R for strong disturbing violence, and for language
Running Time: 103 min.

Cast: Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zoe Soul, Kiele Sanchez, Zach Gilford, Justina Machado, Michael K. Williams, Jack Conley, John Beasley
Director: James DeMonaco
Screenplay: James DeMonaco

Review published July 19, 2014

The first The Purge had been one of the surprise hits of 2013, earning $64 million on a $3 million budget.  What it had was its interesting concept.  What it lacked was the budget to really flesh out that concept beyond a standard home-invasion thriller. That concept is the same with The Purge: Anarchy, which isn't a sequel so much as an attempt to make James DeMonaco's original concept with a budget that allows it to come to life.  It's not really that much higher of a buidget, at a reported $9 million, but it sure feels like a lot more bang for the buck, as the scope has widened greatly to various locales around Los Angeles.

In a setup that feels like the premise of a video game like "Arkham Asylum" meets "Grand Theft Auto", it's the year 2023 in the United States, and the 9th year of 'The Purge', which is a half-day in which emergency services like cops and firemen are shut down and citizens are allowed to commit nearly any crime they want without penalty, which keeps things peaceful the rest of the year.  Most people seem to murder others, whether in revenge for a past wrong, or just to appease their sadistic urge to maim and kill others.  While homicidal maniacs roam the streets looking for their next victims, the good people try their best to hole up in their homes and hope that they aren't targeted by any crazies roaming about their area.

Frank Grillo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Collision) is the de-facto star of the film, playing a man who is armed to the teeth and looking to 'cleanse' (aka murder) a particular person, ostensibly in retribution.  En route to his intended kill, he ends up saving the lives of a mother (Ejogo, The Brave One) and daughter (Soul, Prisoners) who've ended up outside of the comfort of their apartment and out in the streets.  They make their escape in his armored vehicle which is now inhabited by another young couple trying to survive the night when their car has broken down, and now with Grillo's car out of commission, the mother offers him the use of her friend's car in exchange for safe passage to their apartment.

It's funny how such a high-concept vehicle can remind us of so many other films.  The first film that comes to mind is John Carpenter's Escape from New York, in which nearly the entire city is full of homicidal thugs (DeMonaco seems to have studied well from Carpenter -- he wrote the remake of Assault on Precinct 13, which 2013's The Purge cribbed greatly from), and we're witnessing a quest for survival among people who are more righteous.  The next film is Walter Hill's The Warriors, in which street gangs roam the city looking for one particular misunderstood gang, and it becomes a battle to survive the night.  Of course, there's George Miller's Mad Max, because of its society in a state of anarchy that is overrun by costumed marauders.  Some people might classify this film as a horror flick, but I might argue against this, as it is more of a nightmarish vision of a possible future in which the country has finally gone mad.  Just because murderers wear masks doesn't really make this anything more than a dark and scary thriller.

The Purge: Anarchy digs at certain fears that many Americans have about their own country.  The rich fear an uprising of the poor, who blame the elite for continuous taking advantage of them and keeping them down for their own profit.  The poor blame the rich, whom they see as exploiting when they should be helping.  Then there's the fear of the gun nuts, who seem like the only reason they don't normally go on a killing spree is because they just don't want to spend the rest of their lives in prison, so they lay in wait in the hope they will need to use their weaponry; The Purge finally gives them their excuse.  There's the right-wingers who want to eradicate the so-called un-American elements ruining the country, and the militant left-wingers who want to overthrow the powers that be oppressing them. And then, there's the fear of gangs -- young, mainly ethnic bands of young men (and a few women) with a mob mentality to terrorize their neighborhoods for kicks. 

DeMonaco also strikes chords by wrapping all of this madness into commentary on the government and the media, and how these elements are used to shape public opinion in order to effect changes that aren't in the best interests of the people at large.  It's all cloaked in the quasi-religious garb of patriotism, as the so-called "New Founding Fathers" (i.e., the Purge creators) are revered as saviors of society by the media who seem to praise going out and "releasing the beast" as the great American thing to do.  The use of religious jargon is also quite high in this film, mostly espoused in order to exert one's influence over another.  It's an irony that those who invoke God are not religious people, but more of the type that marry God and America into one concept that justifies their actions against those who they deem as not worthy of either. The notion that a population of people will equate "legal" and "good" is also explored, as if government should be looked at as the ultimate purveyors of our own collective morality.

Despite some interesting concepts and very intense moments, The Purge: Anarchy is only passably watchable entertainment that feels like it is still not delivering fully on the promise of its concept.  It's a survival story for the most part, with lots of social commentary only hinted at, and the acting by anyone who isn't Grillo or Ejogo is fairly standard throughout, and woefully inadequate during particularly harrowing or tragic moments that occur in the film's big climactic fight.  The dialogue could probably use a bit of punching up as well, especially in tempering the menace with more satirical beats.

What we're left with after watching The Purge: Anarchy is a host of indelible images of an urban nightmare.  It's not plausible, but in the moment, it can often feel realistic in gnawing at our inner fears of how our country could end up if anarchy ruled the day.  DeMonaco isn't saying anything specific about America, except that perhaps it is full of too many crackpots with guns biding their time to employ them against a host of potential scapegoats for their discontent.  It's schlocky and exploitative, to be sure, but plays bigger.  While it seems like it only scratches the surface of American domestic fears, and a very literal example of class warfare, it taps into them so effectively, it emerges as one of the more tense b-movies of the year.

-- Followed by The Purge: Election Year

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo