2013’s The Purge had a mish-mash of good ideas. It was important socioeconomic commentary, but smothered by the confusion of its genre trappings. The overt commentary was out of sync with the stakes of the story’s moral drama, and the audience ended up identifying more with the violence than the message about economic inequality. Director James DeMonaco has returned for the sequel The Purge: Anarchy, and although he hasn’t dropped the commentary, he’s reconciled himself to a tight action-thriller that may not be particularly thoughtful, but at least it’s exciting and holds few pretensions.
For those who didn’t see the first movie (and you don’t need to; there’s only flicker of connection in terms of the plot), America is prosperous and unemployment is low. The trade-off is that every year there’s The Purge: a period of 12 hours where all crime including murder is legal. Only the highest-ranking members of society are off limits. This time, the focus shifts to three groups of characters—waitress Eva (Armen Ejogo) and her daughter Cali (Zoë Soul), Shane (Zach Gilford) and his estranged wife Liz (Kiele Sanchez), and the mysterious Leo (Frank Grillo). Eva, Cali, Shane, and Liz are innocent civilians who get stuck on the street during The Purge, and Leo, although he’s on a mission of revenge, reluctantly decides to help the group. He agrees to take them to a safe location, but first they must survive the violent street gangs and random psychopaths wandering outside.
The movie’s big selling point is that it’s taking the action to the streets, but the real draw is that it’s taking to action, period. There was nothing necessarily wrong with a home-invasion thriller, but DeMonaco couldn’t handle the balance. The sequel shows he’s far more comfortable when he can litter the street with mayhem like snipers and roving bands of madmen. The first movie invested so heavily in moral stakes that it couldn’t sustain eccentricities like people in masks wielding machetes. Anarchy is filled with these kinds of characters and expands the scope of the Purge in all the right ways.
DeMonaco still retains the commentary of the first movie, but this time he’s content to play it as loud as the set pieces rather than try to skillfully weave it into a constricted narrative. Anarchy introduces Carmelo (Michael K. Williams), a militant rebel leader bent on disrupting and ending the Purge by breaking one of its unwritten rules: Don’t prevent others from purging. He’s also one of the voices questioning the system rather than accepting the harsh reality. He’s making a call to arms, and that’s the cruel twist because there’s no way to stop the violence until the leaders are brought down through violence.
We’re not at that point yet with Anarchy, and while it’s a good setup for future movies, I like that we’re focused on this one band of survivors, especially since it’s being lead by Grillo. Part of why I like The Purge: Anarchy is because DeMonaco has basically made a fourth Punisher movie. If you slapped a giant skull on the front of Leo’s black body armor, you’d have The Punisher. Grillo looks the part, and the character has no hesitance about killing bad guys. Granted, he doesn’t set out to save others, but he ends up being heroic. If Marvel ever decides to make another Punisher, Grillo should be their man. He’s got charisma, gravitas, and is well-suited to the action genre.
And action is probably the best direction for The Purge franchise if it continues. It may have had its roots in horror, but the whole notion of the Purge is that America becomes steeped in violence. The Purge: Anarchy chooses to give up any complex moral questions along with any subtle commentary, and instead chooses to unapologetically indulge in bloodlust. Rather than defend a household, the sequel shows it’s at home among the violent maniacs.