This week, the movie-going public has been handed two sequels that are actually better than the originals. That doesn't mean that either of them are good, but they are an improvement. First up is the one-year-later follow-up to the surprise hit from last year, THE PURGE, which followed a once-a-year night in a future America in which all crime is legal for 12 hours. That Ethan Hawke vehicle was an exercise in claustrophobia and pure paranoia, and the action rarely left the house that Hawke shared with his family. THE PURGE: ANARCHY wisely changes the battlefield, showing us what it's like for folks who are trapped outside during the Purge and are never allowed to hide for long.
Returning writer-director James DeMonaco wrote the screenplay for the remake of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (also starring Hawke), so it should come as no surprise that ANARCHY often feels like a film John Carpenter might have tackled in his younger, action-oriented days. DeMonaco does a solid job building up the tension as the hours tick down until the Purge, and we start to realize that a few nasty folks set the stage for killing and other crimes long before the Purge actually begins. We also learn about the existence of an insurgency group (led by Michael K. Williams' Carmelo) that has taken it upon themselves to decry the Purge and expose it as a means for the government to keep the population of the country's underclass under control.
There's a lively, if not especially inspired, cast on hand to run from building to building, getting targeted and attacked over the course of the Purge, but the only character worth a damn in terms of investing your time and energy is Sgt. Leo (Frank Grillo, most recently seen in the latest CAPTAIN AMERICAN film, as well as THE GREY and WARRIOR). Grillo is terrific character actor who puts just enough of a spin on Leo to make him interesting and colorful as a fully weaponized guy who seems to have put himself out in the Purge deliberately, seeking some manner of revenge.
Also interesting are real-life married couple Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez, playing Shane and Liz, whose car breaks down as they're driving somewhere to begin the process of telling relatives that they are separating. They both seem like the least likely to survive the Purge, and what happens to them is especially interesting. THE PURGE: ANARCHY not only illustrates just how organized some of the roving bands of marauders is, but also gives us examples about how even the safest places can be infected by the spirit of lawlessness during the Purge. The resulting levels of fear easily surpass the closed-in feel of the first film. By opening up the number of places to hide, the chase feels more like the stuff of nightmares.
If you get hung up on the politics behind the PURGE films, you may be missing the point. The movies certainly don't celebrate the thinking behind Purge night, and this second film makes it abundantly clear that the ruling classes are out to thin the herd on a massive scale, and while the film's take on class warfare might be a bit silly, it still makes for great social commentary that is often missing from B movies. THE PURGE: ANARCHY is far from great cinema, but it does offer up an angry point of view that makes for a highly entertaining creation.