James DeMonaco’s The Purge made a crazy amount of money at the box office; $60 million in the US alone. Set in a near future America, for one night a year all crime is legal. Those with a grudge, respectable citizens literally purging themselves of their pent-up rage, and the psychos who just do it for fun – there are no emergency services, nobody to stop them. Americans justify the annual Purge because, for the other three-hundred-and-sixty-four days, crime is non-existent and the US economy is booming. The problem is what happens if you find yourself caught up in the mayhem?
I expected the original film to be both a smart look at society, how it hangs together by a thread, America’s obsession with gun crime and home security, as well as being a fast-paced, tense, stupidly scary film that gave your nerves a thorough workout. While The Purge was an impressively made thriller with some original scares and a number of didn’t-see-that-coming plot twists, it didn’t take advantage of its incredibly nasty and clever premise. It’s a well above average home invasion thriller, nowhere near as frightening as David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s Them (if you’re a fan of horror and you’ve never seen Them, you need to give it a watch; the final ten minutes are dizzying, disturbing stuff!) and not quite up there with recent American horror classics such as The Last Exorcism or The Conjuring.
Instead of focusing on one family and one location, DeMonaco’s sequel, The Purge: Anarchy is set across a whole city: A nameless man (Frank Grillo) has decided to Purge for reasons unknown; mother and daughter Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and Cali (Zoë Soul) are kidnapped by what appears to be an organised hit squad; while Shane (Zack Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) are stranded whilst the Purge is going on around them.
Anarchy is unusual for a sequel in that it’s a different genre from the original. The Purge was a horror film, no questions there; Ethan Hawke wanders round his pitch black house, waiting for the next masked intruder to leap out at him. The sequel is a Grindhouse-style action thriller. While there are a couple of jolts that you don’t expect, the suspense this time round comes from wondering who’s going to be shot, stabbed, set alight, or blown up.
Swapping from a small family to a group of survivors mostly works here. Grillo is a murderer with a conscience. He will calmly snap a man’s neck or shoot them, then follows this by checking that everyone in his group are okay. We know nothing about Grillo except he’s good with a gun and hand-to-hand combat (Bryan Mills’ younger brother – he even has Neeson’s jacket!), snarling at anyone who asks about his past. Frustratingly, the last ten minutes of the film, where we find out why Grillo is purging, feels rushed, it’s all wrapped up too quickly. There’s a smart twist, but instead of hinting at Grillo’s backstory throughout Anarchy’s running time, it’s as if DeMonaco realised, when writing the script, that he had loose ends to tie up and does all of this in the last few minutes. Ejogo and Soul refuse to believe that violence solves anything, never getting their hands dirty; all they want to do is survive and keep hold of their humanity. Gilford and Sanchez are given the least interesting roles here as a couple who find themselves out on the streets while everyone is killing each other. You get the sense that Gilford and Sanchez’s roles were written just so they could stumble into trouble and need rescuing. While none of the characters onscreen are all that complex or conflicting, at least they’re not the usual stereotypes you expect to see; DeMonaco tries to give us something different.
Anarchy feels a lot smarter than the original, spending more time putting its premise under the microscope. The chief argument here is that a night where murder is legal is simply the government’s way to keep the poor under control; the Powers That Be see poverty stricken America as money down the drain instead of people with families who are forced to put up with their situation. Only the rich make it through the Purge; they have the money to defend themselves.
Just like The Purge, Anarchy isn’t all that subtle when it comes to its satire, but it has plenty of ideas you don’t normally see in a violent splatter film: party political broadcasts casually mentioning anarchy and murder; wealthy families paying ridiculous sums of money to a person’s family, so they can do what they want with them (John Beasley surrounded by a suited and booted family, all holding machetes, the room covered in plastic sheeting – made all the more horrific because DeMonaco cuts away from what happens next).
The Purge: Anarchy does what all sequels should do; it’s more ambitious, it tries to do more. The latest in what is certain to be a long-lasting franchise has plenty of well judged, wasn’t-expecting-that, action set pieces, but it’s nowhere near as smart as it thinks it is, thanks to the ideas this time round being ham-fistedly thrown at the screen. Anarchy is one of those rare sequels that’s worthy of your time and thrilling to watch; just not as successful as 28 Weeks Later or Rec. 2, which both ripped up the rules set out by the original films and veered off in the other direction.
3 out of 5