The Purge: Anarchy
(103 minutes, Rated R)
The Purge was one of my least favorite films of last year: in fact, it even made my worst features of 2013 list. The original failed, in my opinion, because it took such an amazing premise and told a contained story about stupid people doing stupid things. There is nothing wrong with using a claustrophobic story with this type of setting: in fact, the beauty of the annual purge is how you can take this premise and tell any kind of story.
For instance, the original tried really hard to be a horror; and while there are creepy elements, there is nothing truly scary about it. Here, the filmmakers decided to shed the ‘horror’ title, but still kept the creepy elements that worked. So instead, the audience is treated to an action/thriller, which makes The Purge: Anarchy leagues ahead of its predecessor.
Now, this is not the only improvement; one of my biggest problems with The Purge was actually Ethan Hawke. Yes, he is a great actor who just gave an Oscar worthy performance in Boyhood, but in the original he felt miscast and out of place. At least, the sequel benefits from the casting of Frank Grillo: a man with limited range, but he fits perfectly into this type of movie. I also happen to be an unapologetic fan of Grillo, which is perhaps an obscure fandom; and I have been enthused to see the man getting more roles, including the villainous Crossbones in Captain America: Winter Soldier.
With all that said, Grillo really holds The Purge: Anarchy together; his character, who is simply named Sergeant, is the badass that the series needed. One scene in particular, in which he smiles at a man who has a gun pointed at his head, will be cemented in my mind as one of the coolest character moments in an action flick. Furthermore, Grillo really plays off Sergeant’s mysterious nature; all the audience knows about him, if you did not see the trailers, is that he is good with a weapon and wants to kill someone who wronged him.
The movie really gets going when Sergeant is driving to his ‘victim’s house;’ along the way, he stumbles across the abduction of the mother-daughter pair, Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and Cali (Zoë Soul). Instead of just letting them be slaughtered for the purge, the grizzled Sergeant (Frank Grillo) saves them, breaking the only rule of the night. And as a result, like a domino effect, the group comes together and gets placed in the reluctant care of Sergeant. Right off the bat, this group is an improvement over the The Purge’s protagonists, who were one-percenters that directly profited off the annual purge—Ethan Hawke’s character sold protection units to the rich. At least, in my opinion, that is a hard protagonist to feel empathy towards.
On the other hand, our protagonists, who are either lower middle class or lower class, are all innocent people, who are simply dragged into life and death events. Even the soon to be divorced couple, Liz (Kiele Sanchez) and Shane (Zach Gilford), have extenuating circumstances that lead them into the care of Sergeant. The one problem with all these characters is that once they do become a part of the group, they really do not have much to do: in some instances, they are underdeveloped walking clichés. Yes, in certain parts they get their time to shine, but this is Grillo’s movie ‘through and through.’ And again, this works because he has a thoroughly interesting motivation that also happens to be extremely dark. Now, the premise itself is really bleak; however, the original ended on a bit of a high note, which reeked of Hollywood intervention. I may be in the minority here, but I like my bleak films depressing: to the point that I am questioning humanity. And Sergeant’s intended goals nearly completed this nihilistic fantasy; however, the picture decides to take a detour at the end and basically chickens out, which is not surprising for a mainstream flick. It is also semi-understandable because the main character has to be likable, but a darker ending could have really distinguished The Purge: Anarchy.
But, this does highlight the weakest aspect of the series: James DeMonaco’s writing and directing. As previously mentioned, the sequel has a cookie-cutter ending that feels way too happy, at least in regards to what happened throughout the story. Now, just because I enjoyed the overall product does not mean it is well written; in fact, the story is extremely predictable. DeMonaco does not use any effort to hide his plot devices; the beginning telegraphs events that will obviously come back by the end to effect the story. These telegraphed events are almost as bad as Lethal Weapon 2’s shoulder dislocation scene.
The one semi-good thing that can be said is that The Purge: Anarchy is an overall smarter product; they actually talk about the social implications of the purge. With that said, I do not think DeMonaco has ever learned subtlety; he went from the first one being brain dead to the characters in the sequel consistently spewing exposition-heavy political beliefs. I like the presence of politics, but I did not need Cali consistently spouting her views or the overacted Malcolm X-type Carmelo (Michael K. Williams). Furthermore, the director needs to learn how to write curse words into dialogue. For instance, black individuals do not need to say bitch at the end of every sentence: particularly Carmelo, who is supposed to be the leader of a political movement. His lines become almost comical because of the curse words.
Luckily, the unusual creepy folks from the original reappear in the sequel; I have to give DeMonaco credit because he can write demented characters. And to be honest, besides Grillo’s Sergeant they are the highlight; the creepy skater gang who sell people to the rich, the bible spouting rooftop sniper, or even the actual rich people are all demented sideshows that increased my enjoyment. Yes, DeMonaco’s dialogue will result in unintentional laughter from a few of these scenes, but I still found these individuals quite effective. Again, the directing, like the writing, has improved, but is still severely flawed. Yes, The Purge: Anarchy is more of an action flick, but of course, DeMonaco has fallen into the action genre cliché of using shaky cam and quick cuts, which become almost nauseating towards the end: specifically, a night vision scene that could have been cool becomes undistinguishable. On top of this, certain sections suffer from weird transitions or simply awkward camera angles that basically took me out of the story: thus taking away some of the B-level fun.
With that said, the violence in the sequel is effective and gruesome, even if the blood is CGI; yes, it is distracting to see fake blood, but at this point, I am ambivalent about its use. There is no point at getting mad anymore because, these days, it is being used in almost every release. All in all, DeMonaco’s direction is flawed, but manageable: which does make me wonder, where the series can go in more capable hands. In the end, The Purge: Anarchy is nothing but a guilty pleasure, which simply gets elevated because of my extremely low expectations. It perfectly toes the line between campy fun and its hopeless atmospheric tone. And the result is a sequel that delivers on its fantastic premise, while also being everything I hoped the original to be. Again, go into this with low expectations and there is a chance that you will enjoy it: which is a basic way of saying, I recommend this, but with some reservations.
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