Before he directed 2013's "The Purge," a low budget near-future horror-thriller in which everyone in the U.S. is invited to kill without repercussions for one night a year, James DeMonaco's credits included the screenplay for the 2005 remake of John Carpenter's "Assault on Precinct 13." It's no surprise, then, that his followup "The Purge: Anarchy" features a distinctly Carpenterish vibe.
Carpenter's B-movie efforts, from "They Live!" to "The Thing," cleverly sublimated his leftist attitudes into genre tropes. "The Purge: Anarchy" follows suit. While the earlier movie touched on the inherent classist metaphor embedded in the concept — only the rich can afford the security to survive the purge — "Anarchy," wielding the boosted confidence of a sequel to a successful franchise, embraces its capacity for social critique by placing it front and center. Like the first "Purge," the ideas are blunt, messy and patently absurd, but that's also part of the fun.
A City Gone Mad
Whereas "The Purge" took place exclusively within the confines of a suburban home, reflecting the economical approach to studio genre fare that producer Blumhouse Productions has perfected with the "Paranormal Activity" franchise, "The Purge: Anarchy" expands to a much larger terrain. Alternately set in suburban and downtown Los Angeles, the movie unfolds like a scrappy "Escape from New York," with several mostly lower class residents struggling to survive the night while stranded in the lawless streets.
Once again, the setting is roughly a decade into the future, when the nefarious governing system the New Founding Fathers of America continues to uphold its 28th Amendment that legalizes the purge. The framework is patently ludicrous, but for some odd reason, both movies try to play it straight: From the first scene, when Latino waitress Carmen (Eva Sanchez) bids "good luck" to her co-workers, it's clear that the newest installment will again walk that slippery line between allegorical and literal dread.
Real Concerns, Real People
But Carmen, who flounders at the bottom of the food chain as the single mom of teen Cali (Zoe Soul) while caring for her ailing father (John Beasley), provides a believable foundation for the movie's wacky premise. Living in unfortified housing projects, the pair wind up under attack by gun-wielding lunatics and nearly executed before lone gunman Sergeant (a stern Frank Grillo) surfaces to save them. Seeking out revenge against the man who killed his child, Sergeant's plight introduces similarly obvious ethical questions rendered in excessive terms, and the good-natured Cali nips at his conscience with the kind of basic moralizing one might expect. ("Purging is wrong!" she cries.)
Rounding out the group, hipster couple Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) wander alongside with less compelling results. Character development is not this franchise's strongest suit, but at least its main survivors harbor real concerns.
At its worst, "The Purge: Anarchy" stumbles through a vignette-like structure involving numerous shadowy gunfights and underwhelming showdowns, with the badass Sergeant leading the charge every step of the way. But the movie's potential blossoms whenever it toys with the allegorical ingredients head-on. DeMonaco's script plays like a devious Brothers Grimm tale told through the filter of Occupy Wall Street.
Tidbits include the shocking sight of a corrupt stockbroker hanging from the building where he worked ("maybe he deserved it," one character sighs) to a government conspiracy involving the mass slaughter of poor citizens to keep the nation's imbalance of wealth in check. And it allows for serious payoff in the form of a renegade group designed to protect lower class citizens, headed by a militant Michael K. Williams. There's nothing quite like watching Omar from "The Wire," buried under a beret that explicitly invokes memories of the Black Panther movement, bursting into a room with a gun held high and shouting "Get ready to die, rich bitches!"Short of the much smarter class warfare metaphor in "Snowpiercer," it's the closest thing to subversive summer escapism you can ask for, and a better application of studio dollars than most oversized CGI-heavy tentpoles.
Why So Serious?
Ultimately, given the sheer ridiculousness of these scenes — and their potential to match the outlandish scenario — it's unfortunate that "The Purge: Anarchy" makes so many attempts to keep things serious. Of course, that's also key to its sneaky appeal: It's a polemic disguised as dumb entertainment, but at its best moments, manages to have it both ways.
Even the more obvious scares in "The Purge" stem from genuine concerns. "‘The Purge' series wouldn't be complete without a masked gang igniting panic in every person that crosses its path," announces the sequel's press notes. But these hooligans take on a more specific identity that, when revealed, perfectly suits the darker themes in play. One of them, a machete-wielding menace who pursues our heroes by motorbike, is played by Keith Stanfield — last seen delivering an extraordinary rap about his personal life in the emotionally potent "Short Term 12," which centered on a home for at-risk teens. "The Purge: Anarchy" never bothers to reach for such deep social realism, nor would any expect it to try.
But when not drowning in gravitas, it manages to develop a potent assault on institutional failure within a cartoonishly deranged context. Sure, it's stupid — but by virtue of exploiting violence to criticize a real world issue, "The Purge: Anarchy" wields its stupidity like a sharp stick.
"For those unleashing the beast," announces a newscaster early on, "we wish you a happy purge." It's a funny line, but the laugh catches in your throat. Viewers bracing for a demented thrill ride may relate to that blessing — suggesting that the unthinkable near future of "The Purge" universe might not be so far off, after all.
Universal Pictures releases "The Purge: Anarchy" nationwide on Friday.