Now this is what I’m talking about. This was a film that absolutely had no right being as good as it ultimately was. The even more surprising thing was that this little action horror hybrid from an upstart production company (Blumhouse Productions) had a surprising amount of subtext to go along with the gore and carnage. Though it bears the same name and basic concept, there is ultimately nothing that connects this film with the Ethan Hawke starred that preceded it a year ago. That first film was another in a long line of carbon copy home invasion movies that failed to deliver on a somewhat innovative premise. The original Purge was a pretty decent success in terms of its box office rankings (89.3 million box office profit on a 3 million dollar budget) but critics the world over were fairly indifferent to the film as a whole.
If any of you have even a small idea of how the Hollywood hit making machine works… Money talks and bullshit walks. If you recoup even a moderate amount of profit (which the first Purge film handily did) the studio feels the overwhelming need to go back to the well as much as possible and ring out every last dollar out of any franchise possibilities. Thankfully, as dull as the first Purge was, it was enough of a success to warrant a sequel. Holy cow, what a sequel this was!
The Purge: Anarchy moves its central focus out of a single home in rich white suburbia onto the streets of the event itself. This was a wise move because the stakes have been elevated to almost hair raising proportions. The chief complaint of the first film was the fact that it built its self around this idea of complete lawlessness the world over for one night a year and instead chose to focus on grating characters that made really dumb and overly stereotypical horror movie decisions limited to one often poorly lit location. Suddenly this amazingly original concept was hampered by an overused plot mechanic.
It would appear that writer/director James Demonaco also shared a few of the same sentiments we did, because this new Purge movie is absolutely what we should have gotten the first time around. Several innocent bystanders are dragged out onto the streets on the Purge night against their will and must make their way through the night with a cranky but tough survival expert leading the way. I know that sounds like an overtly simple plot, but that’s one of the brilliant things about this piece. It cuts away from the excess and bloat normally found in horror films and lets the basic plot structure breathe on its own. Also the lean plot structure allows for much heavier symbolism and more parallels to be drawn to the current state of economical discord. I won’t start editorializing my own person politics here, but this movie raises several strong and well thought out arguments on the sort of social disharmony we experience at the hands of the different socio-economical levels we seem to exist on. That’s right… a body count movie with buckets of blood has an actual well thought out message to get across.
The Purge: Anarchy is mostly an ensemble piece, but the main plot thrust involves a steely eyed Frank Grillo, who plays a character only ever referred to as Sergeant(the character’s actual name is never referenced at least that I remember). While most people board up their windows and prepare to hide themselves from the evils that will take place, this man arms himself to the teeth and proceeds to drive around on Purge night with a complete cocksure swagger. He’s on a particular mission that doesn’t see itself revealed to us until the end of the second act. I won’t spoil it too much, but even though the ends don’t always justify the means, any mothers or fathers would be hard pressed to stop this force of nature from accomplishing what he sets out to do. Grillo plays this guy as the ultimate gruff action hero with a heart of gold. He anchors a rather strong stable of actors with his grounded performance. If you were to mix equal parts of The Punisher and Snake Plisken(who was the main protagonist of Escape from New York) that would be the perfect summation of what you’re getting with the Sergeant. He will be the most talked about performance of the bunch. Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul also play a mother and daughter who we are introduced to in the opening moments. Zoe Soul in particular, delivers a strong performance as her character Cali is the first one to eventually crack Sergeants icy cold exterior to allow us to see the humanity that resides within him. Zoe never plays her as a scared teenager, but as someone who accepts the reality of the horror that surrounds her and strives to be a part of the change necessary to do away with the Purge all together.
There’s another small element to the plot that involves a webcaster who spreads his messages of discontent at the government for being responsible for the growing class war amongst its citizens. It is more often than not, very heavy handed and at the same time forgettable. Michael K Williams plays the malcontent Carmello whose web videos are often referred back to throughout the movie. His characterization of the political activist isn’t uniformly bad… Just very blasé.
On the flip side of the token, and one of the only valid complaints i have, Zach Gilford is a complete weak link. His portrayal of Shane, a man who is clearly on the outs with his wife at the start of the film, is a textbook example of fundamentally lazy writing. His character exists solely as a plot device to keep everyone moving along from point A to point B. Late into the film, Shane suddenly decides to try and turn the tide on his lovelorn douchbaggery but by that point it’s too late. His character is quite unsalvageable and the movie would have been better off excising him completely out of the story.
Going back to the film itself, it moves ever so slightly, but confidently away from the first movies more traditional horror roots and places itself firmly alongside films such as Escape From New York (which i previously mentioned) and Assault on Precinct 13. The trappings of the horror genre are still present and woven throughout, but The Purge: Anarchy is its own thing and we should all be extremely grateful for its existence. This is a meticulously plotted, well-acted and genuinely suspenseful film that I feel everyone who has a propensity for this kind of on screen violence deserves to see. The Purge: Anarchy is one of the most clearly shot and edited horror films in a great long while. It’s nice to see all that shaky cam way of handling things is starting to go the way of the dinosaur.
I could continue to go on and on about the completely unexpected, but all together welcomed badassery on display here, but i feel one of my stitches coming loose and my brains spilling down the side of my head so it’s time to wrap this whole review up. The problems of being a cheap Frankenstein like creation are never ending.
The Purge: Anarchy is not without its flaws, but there is no such thing as the perfect film. This movie is elevated past normal horror tripe due to the powerfully charismatic lead performance, the well plotted and excruciatingly suspenseful script, the damning parallels drawn to our own societal problems and the pretty awesome slam bang action work on display. This film comes highly recommended