2013 was a revitalizing year for horror films at the box office. The 1-2-3 combination of “The Purge,” “The Conjuring,” and “You’re Next” wowed the industry from a commercial and critical (mostly) standpoint. “The Purge” was the dark horse of the trio, taking in critical bile, mine included, for unforgivably wasting the most interesting premise for any kind of film, forget just horror, that I’ve heard in years. Writer-director James DeMonaco took the idea of a government sanctioned 12 hour period where all crime is legal and stuck it in the middle of a boring home invasion movie where there’s now an explainable reason for why no one bothers to call the cops. Thanks to its overwhelming commercial success ($64 million against a measly $3 million budget), a sequel was greenlit immediately, and now we can bear witness to “The Purge: Anarchy,” a sequel that manages to correct some of its predecessor’s mistakes but whose scattershot tone still strands it in the space between gory high-camp thrill rides like and overly serious social justice polemics.
The horror focus has been jettisoned for the most part this time in favor of an action-thriller vibe similar to old John Carpenter like “Assault on Precinct 13” or “Escape from New York.” The New Founding Fathers’ Purge is a resounding success resulting in record low and high crime and employment rates, respectively. Five people find themselves literally and figuratively outside of their comfort zones and smack dab in the middle of a huge city on Purge Night for different reasons. Mother and daughter Eva and Cali Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul) are forced out of their home by a strike team looking to bring poorer citizens to the doors of the rich for slaughter, couple Shane and Liz (Zack Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) run out of gas on the highway, and ex-cop Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) is purposely on the streets to seek vengeance for the death of his young son. Barnes leads them through the war-torn streets and all the while revolutionary Carmelo (Michael K. Williams) attempts to convince the population to utilize The Purge as a time to reject and overthrow The New Founding Fathers.
The main problem with the first “Purge” was its cop-out decision to ground an interesting premise into a story that we’ve seen hundreds of times. Both films emphasize that every crime, INCLUDING MURDER, is legal. That may be the cool hip crime, but what else is everyone doing during this twelve hour period of lawlessness? Are people pirating terabyte after terabyte of films and music? Are there jaywalkers crossing the streets by the hundreds? Do hackers like Anonymous and others do most of their work at this time? Is there a flood of illegal immigrants coming into America from all over the world? Do hack doctors with no medical licenses conduct all of their surgeries during The Purge? Do foreign countries think of invading the United States?
As I’ve stated before, there are a lot of places to take this concept, and to its credit “Anarchy” does attempt to vary things up a bit. Street toughs begins to offer protection services to poorer citizens and we’re even granted an inside look at how the richest of the rich do their duty. I won’t spoil it, but if you’ve been paying attention to the commercials and go in understanding that the rich are irredeemably evil, you’ll figure it out fast.
Now, I’m an advocate of social justice polemics in films. I just talked about how “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” was a nuanced allegory disguised as an ape-tacular action pic last week, and as a satire of sorts, “Anarchy” does have an overarching point to make. “Anarchy” takes every opportunity it can through Williams’ Carmelo to confirm what was only implied in the first film about wealth disparity and the rich devising The Purge as a way for the lower classes to kill each other off to balance the economy. It even goes so far as to have the rich literally hunting down the poor for sport. Subtle, “Anarchy” is not.
Despite the hard swipes at low-hanging fruit, “Anarchy” doesn’t have much to say about what’s going on besides “the rich are evil.” It’s blunt and has nothing new to say, but “Anarchy” is a much more intense and tactile film than “The Purge.” The pace is more frenetic and there’s plenty of surprisingly gory action that’s entertaining. Frank Grillo’s performance and character shackles “Anarchy” with the second problem that “The Purge” had, namely an inconsistent tone. It could never decide whether it wanted to be a straight horror film, a family drama, or a thriller and fell just below all three. In fairness, “Anarchy” is indeed a slight improvement here, as much as a film about The Punisher guiding four wayward souls through the urban jungle can be. DeMonaco seems to be getting a grip on exactly what he’s trying to say, but the blunt and dated manner in which he says it is drowned out by the action. It’s no “Escape From New York,” but an improvement is an improvement, even if the overall pot still refuses to come to a boil. I’m hoping DeMonaco explores the world of Pirate Bay next.