It doesn’t take a thinking person more
than ten seconds to poke holes in the premise of “The Purge.” It
also doesn’t take one to see the seductive hook of the material:
Americans acting upon some sort of birthright to behave like animals,
to let loose the chains of propriety and savagely end each other.
“The Purge: Anarchy” takes place in 2023, and the surprise isn’t
that the American dream has become, “Fend for yourself, leave
others behind.” No, the surprise is in why this sentiment
necessitates the film taking place nine years in the future.
“The Purge: Anarchy” borrows
nothing from the earlier film in the franchise other than the
premise: Every year on March 21st, a twelve hour period
allows Americans the freedom to commit crime of any sort, which for
many includes murder and assault. Some find themselves willing to
“purge” to allow their demons to rest during the rest of the
year. Others seek revenge, The Purge representing a chance to provide
equality to the scale of “good and evil.” And, as the first film
suggested, the government sees it as a chance to wipe away the lower
class and minorities, so that they may boast of lower unemployment
and homeless statistics.
That last angle is pushed harder in ‘Anarchy,’ which switches gears from the 1%-leaning first film to
showcase people on their last legs financially. Carmen Ejogo and Zoe
Soul are a mother-daughter combo just barely getting by in the
projects, struggling to afford Dad’s medication. And Zach Gilford and
Kiele Sanchez are a couple on the verge of breaking up, though the
fact that she drives and pays for groceries as he stews suggests
finances might be a point of contention as well. Both of these duos
elaborate on their economic problems in repetitive dialogue that
suggests subtext has been left behind. Then again, many of the film’s
political points are made early on by Michael K. Williams as a
truth-to-power rebel on the internet who sees that the Purge is very
obviously financially-driven. The movie never questions his prophet
status because iconography and fake-activism are more important to
the movie than actually developing sharp critique. Better to have
mouthpieces than actual mouths.
And then there’s Frank Grillo, armed to
the teeth, walking into this film like a star ten times his size.
Grillo, a hard man in a soft cinematic world, cuts an intimidating
figure. In a long trenchcoat and five o’clock shadow, he does what
all great movie stars do: he lets the other characters know he’s one
of them, but otherwise seems a hundred feet tall. Other actors are
merely leasing the screen. Grillo, with his ornery, rock-edged
handsomeness and action-ready physique, owns it. His Leo Barnes
stands at a stark contrast to the film’s bumbling, often incompetent
action, as if he were on loan from another, better franchise. It’s
not too late to re-title the film “Frank Grillo Vs. The Purge”.
Grillo brings a grounded reality to the
movie, one that otherwise doesn’t seem apparent. ‘Anarchy’ takes
place in a nondescript Los Angeles so small that Barnes and the rest
of this crew (all dim and relatively useless) keep bumping into the
same motorcycle gang and evil delivery truck all night. The movie
takes on the feel of a first-person shooter video game, though the
movie is even less expansive than one of those diversions, and each
block feels just as dangerous, and eventually samey, as the last.
Barnes knows how to handle a gun (and otherwise-unskilled director
James DeMonaco knows how to make him look good), which gives the film
sort of a visceral thrill. The violence of the first film was
punishing and unpleasant, and ultimately meant to guilt the
bloodthirsty audience that paid money to see it. This one veers
further from actual horror into an action picture. “The Purge”
tries to unsettle. “The Purge: Anarchy” wants you to cheer.
Because the film showcases lower income
characters, of course it’s going to veer into rich-eat-the-poor
territory. The disappointment is that is shows its hand so early, and
so sloppily, that the rest of the film is compromised by crushing
inevitability. “The Purge: Anarchy” depicts class warfare as a
way of life, but it also delights in creating wealthy villains who
have no need to hide behind the masks of propriety and societal
expectations. On paper, this approach seems scarier, the idea that
those that who approve of the power of the government and the
subjugation of minorities and the lower class are secretly insidious
killers, sociopaths who fist-bump after a slaying. But the
characterizations are completely divorced from reality, all
cartoonish old hens and white-haired devils with plastic smiles and
banal evil schemes. Why would evil need to hide in the world of “The
Purge” when political evil doesn’t even hide today? Why does the
world of “The Purge” need a talking head like Michael K. Williams
to tell them what anyone should be able to figure out about the roots
of The Purge?
Ultimately, these movies are hopeless.
There’s no heroism in the world of “The Purge”, just opportunism.
These films benefit from the notion that, if given complete freedom,
humanity will embrace their worst urges, they’ll cave and submit to
their most primal desires. One principled character experiences great
loss in the third act and solemnly declares, out of nowhere, “I
want to Purge.” This is false catharsis, the sort of violence-first
attitude that obscures and beats down any socioeconomic point the
movie wants to make. Capitalism poisons the well, the film argues.
But a couple of guns and some hurt feelings suggest that freedom is
just a couple of bullets away. We currently live in a country where
some towns actually require households to own guns. Maybe if “The
Purge: Anarchy” had as much of a sense of humor as reality, it
would have something to say. [D+]
At one point in "The Purge," a horror film in which Americans are legally allowed to commit crime one night per year, a character laments that "things will never be the same ever again." The line is cringe-worthy given that the character just watched people she loves hurt somebody without hesitation, yet you don't know anyone in the film well enough to care one way or another, and the camera jiggled so much during the violence that you only got teasing, migraine-inducing impressions of the act.
Writer/director James DeMonaco, who previously scripted the surprisingly effective 2005 remake of John Carpenter's "Assault on Precinct 13," cuts creative corners this way throughout "The Purge." He often confuses economical story-telling with paint-by-numbers dialogue and vague characterizations. So instead of being a creepy B-movie about the necessity of suppressing one's animalistic urges, "The Purge" is just an uninspired film.
The concept of Purge Night is novel enough: crime is not in fact cathartic, so while behaving badly once a year may keep the the nation's crime rate down, it also turns people into monsters. But the movie forgets to explore its own premise, and instead focuses on a "Straw Dogs"-like scenario in which a home-owner resists a mob that wants to break into his house in pursuit of a fugitive they want to lynch.
The year is 2022. It may not be dystopia yet, but it's getting there. Somewhere in the suburbs, James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), a top salesman at a security company, has made a lot of money by selling home protection systems that consist of elaborate surveillance systems and steel doors that seal doors and windows. James just wants to hunker down and avoid Purge Night in his home, which, once his own security system activates, transforms into a house-shaped bank vault.
James's wares are put to the test when his sulking loner son Charlie (Max Burkholder) admits a never-identified stranger (Edwin Hodge) into the Sandins' home. Charlie's humanitarian motives don't require much explanation: the stranger is wounded and helpless. But the stranger is also being chased by a posse of machete-wielding yuppies. These killer rich kids are supposed to be as odd-looking as they are menacing, so their leader (Rhys Wakefield) proudly wears a blazer with a fraternity crest, and a mask with a leering grin and long blonde hair that makes him look faintly Crispin Glover-esque. He could be the nerd-hating, Aryan younger brother of Michael Meyers from "Halloween."
Wakefield's character, only identified as "Polite Stranger" in the film's credits, gives James a choice: sacrifice the bleeding stranger and save his family, or perish for a noble lost cause. This scenario is promising enough, though DeMonaco hypocritically encourages viewers to applaud the spectacular deaths of some home invaders before eventually concluding that the best thing for people to be is repressed and non-violent. But James's dilemma is never as nerve-wracking as it should be, because it's never clear what he's fighting for or against.
For one thing, the stranger is barely in the film: he's apparently missing most of the time, and is therefore more of an abstract concept than an identifiable person. And the Polite Stranger is a cartoon fascist with all the nuance of an Adam West-era Batman villain. (What to name him? Killer Preppy? The Jackbooted Collegiate?) After repeatedly calling the wounded stranger a "homeless filthy swine," the Polite Stranger warns James, "Either give us he, or that will be thee!" but only after he tentatively bids James farewell with a florid, "Toodle-oo." Unfortunately, Wakefield's hamminess isn't a patch on Burgess Meredith's Penguin or Frank Gorshin's Riddler, and the film's jittery hand-held photography obscures our view of pretty much everything. It's hard to be shocked when the camera operators' convulsions are more violent than whatever they're shooting.
DeMonaco almost never slows down long enough to give us a singular image of James or his world. A moment in which James peeps out of his front door's steel barricade and stares blankly — but directly! — at the viewer is effectively unnerving. But James is usually not so vulnerable, and the bland circumstances of his macho crisis are only fitfully memorable. Like the previously mentioned character who unbelievably insists nothing can ever be the same after The Purge, James speaks fluent Clichénese. When he finally makes up his mind and tells Mary whether he intends to fight back, his decision is expressed so generically — "This our house!" — that it's unclear what he really cares about, his family's respect or his homeowner's insurance premium. Violence may not be cleansing, but you might want to stifle unhealthy thoughts after watching "The Purge."