I will admit up front that I went into The Purge: Anarchy expecting to hate it. But it's bad form for a critic to go into a film with a pre-formed opinion, and halfway through the film I was reminded why, when I realized that I was enjoying it.
It is the sequel to a surprise hit horror film from 2013 with a goofy premise: In 2016, a political party called the New Founding Fathers wins control of the nation. Chief among their social reforms is The Purge: Every March 21st at 7 p.m., all laws are suspended for 12 hours. Everyone is encouraged to "Release The Beast!", in the theory that it will help make a safer society if everyone gets those bad feelings out of their systems.
Set a year after the events of the first movie, the opening scenes depict the final few hours before the 2023 purge, as people get ready to defend themselves against an onslaught of violence the same routine way we now get ready for Thanksgiving. We meet Eva (Carmen Ejogo), a waitress who lives with her daughter, Cali (Zoë Soul), and their Papa (John Beasley), who want nothing to do with The Purge. Elsewhere, a young couple, Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) try to get home before the kickoff siren sounds. Then there's a Man With No Name (Frank Grillo, credited as "Sergeant") who is girding to ride into battle in his armored sedan.
Cali and Gina are threatened by a greasy rapist Diego (Noel Gugliemi), when their building is invaded by a paramilitary force led by a chain-gun-wielding former military type known as Big Daddy (Jack Conley), who directs his men from an armored semi. Sarge, against his better judgment, rescues Cali and Gina from the clutches of the mysterious militia, and Liz and Shane seek shelter in his car from a creepy, masked biker gang apparently inspired by the urban street documentary Twelve O'Clock Boys. The haphazard team travels through the city in a skillfully assembled series of riffs on zombie movies, Mad Max, Dirty Harry, The Warriors, and, finally, The Hunger Games.
The Purge: Anarchy is a quick, cheap exploitation movie that intends to fill seats with promises of over-the-top violence. But it delivers something much more subversive and interesting. Billed as horror, it resembles social science fiction movies of the early '70s such as The Omega Man, A Clockwork Orange, and Soylent Green. The sometimes clunky screenplay succeeds because writer/director James DeMonaco has the courage to drill down into the premise and ask not only how society would be reshaped by an annual orgy of violence, but who would benefit? The film doesn't shy away from the question of class in late-stage capitalism — even before it starts crucifying stockbrokers — by introducing a revolutionary force led by the mysterious Carmelo (Michael K. Williams).
And, true to the spirit of the best exploitation movies, it manages to have its ultraviolent cake and eat it too. Like David Cronenberg's Videodrome, it indicts the viewer for loving its onscreen violence, asking a gun-obsessed culture, Gladiator-style, "Are you not entertained?"
The Purge: Anarchy
Opens Friday, July 18th