The Purge: Anarchy opens hours before the Annual Purge: The one night when all crime — including murder — is temporarily decriminalized. Americans all over the country either barricade themselves indoors to hide from the violence, or stockpile weapons in preparation of “purging the beast.” The film’s focal character Sergeant (Frank Grillo) falls into the latter category — at least technically; he hits the streets armed to the teeth on an unspecified mission of vengeance. However, unlike most of the people you’re likely to run into on Purge night, he’s not without a conscious. En route, Sergeant rescues a helpless ensemble of characters including a mother-daughter duo (played by Justina Machado and Zoë Soul) and a young couple who, on the eve of separation, ran into car trouble (played by Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez). Together they discover the government might not be that absent from the Purge after all.
In this sequel, director/writer James DeMonaco elaborates on the world he’s created in 2013’s “The Purge,” but could definitely say more. Why don’t Americans hightail to Canada? In fact, out of all the countries on Earth, why don’t any of them react to the Purge? It’s never explained whether the Purge is a worldwide phenomenon, or if it’s localized in the States — the latter of which is heavily implied. Have the States, by some futuristic revival of Manifest Destiny, swallowed up the world as a whole? Would people really be slaughtering each other so senselessly? Money seems to be the motive for most of the violence today; or maybe there’s a psychopath on every block we’re not aware of. Given the concept’s absurdity, there are some questions you’ll just have to suspend disbelief for.
The socioeconomic themes can also get ham-fisted. They might’ve struck that working-class part of my soul devoted to hating the wealthy, but also distracted from Sergeant’s strife — the real reason I was engaged. It seems ironic that Michael Bay — yes, the Michael Bay — is credited as a producer; like he wouldn’t be the first to round up a bunch of us as test dummies for repurposed set explosives. The Purge: Anarchy is less didactic than the original though. Subtlety always works best; one of the film’s most powerful scenes comes early on, when a dying man sells himself to a wealthy family as a Purge in order to support his daughter and granddaughter financially — an act of kindness juxtaposed by its underlying moroseness. In addition, Michael K. Williams from “The Wire” stars as Carmelo, the leader of a revolutionary movement dedicated to dismantling the Purge, which he claims is a way of killing off the poor and undesirable; his character becomes a conduit for much of the film’s political discussion but, despite K. Williams’ immense talent, remains shockingly underutilized.
As far as leading men are concerned, Sergeant is nicely cast and executed. Grillo is great at the quiet, brooding charisma his character demands. Unfortunately, Sergeant is also a really clichéd protagonist. His quest for vengeance is something DeMonaco’s pulled from several hundred action movies; the ambiguity behind it is trite, as if it’d be anything other than a dead kid or a murdered wife. All that’s missing is the coup de grâce: An alcohol problem. Yet, like Ethan Hawke before him, Grillo overcomes the weak script and acts with enough conviction to be believable.
The entire ensemble, not surprisingly, fits into your typical horror tropes. The young couple is clueless; the daughter is annoyingly inquisitive; and nobody gives a damn about what Sergeant has to say — never mind the fact he saves their lives on more than one occasion. “Stay safe” might be the mantra those forced to participate in the Purge stand by, but I don’t think healthy skepticism should apply to a man who personally rescues and arms you. That said, Gilford’s character is the most obnoxious of the bunch. I loved him as Matt Saracen — the greenhorn athlete who led the Dillon Panthers to victory — not as the bitter boyfriend who questions everything the minute he’s given a gun.
Every halfway successful horror movie is turned into a franchise. However, unlike “Saw” or “Paranormal Activity,” there’s genuine potential in a Purge series. The Purge: Anarchy may not be the smartest or most inventive blockbuster to date, but its vision of dystopia is intriguing enough to want more. Its most memorable moments unravel at the start of the film, when the characters are out doing their last-minute grocery shopping, and wishing each other a safe trip home as they get off work; at its crux, the Purge series is about maintaining humanity — even when the world around us turns barbaric. DeMonaco’s reluctance to put humanistic drama over violence is his most telling social commentary.