The clever conceit behind James DeMonaco’s 2013 sleeper hit The Purge was not that American society had resolved its crime/inequality/ population problems with an annual free-pass-for-murder “purge.” It was that this hell night came home to roost on isolated, gated suburbanites, ostensibly liberal people above this annual bloodletting, immune to its impact, but benefiting and even profiting from the mayhem – until it invades their community and their homes.
The Purge: Anarchy abandons that sly and disturbing message for a straightforward quest – people trapped outside when the annual “release the beast” commences, people who fall in with a bloody-minded man, bent on vengeance. It’s preachier, more diverse in its casting. All of which make it more specific and limit it. Throw in generally lackluster performances and illogical plot twists and Anarchy is seriously crippled.
It goes wrong right from the start, with the title. Years into this annual purge, it’s become widely accepted. Anarchic? No. There are organized gangs, piling into armored school buses, ‘roid-raging skinheads and tractor trailers full of jackbooted thugs. Images of the Rwandan genocide, or of packs of gun enthusiasts toting their semiautomatic weapons through discount stores come to mind.
A black revolutionary with the basketball hog-friendly name Carmelo (Michael K. Williams) is preaching against the purge, calling it a racist way the rich and powerful use to cull the minority population. But all waitress Eva (Carmen Ejogo) wants to do is keep her daughter (Zoe Soul) safe for the night and her aged dad (John Beasley) out of trouble. Then trouble blows down their door.
Liz (Kiele Sanchez) and Shane (Zach Gilford) are a bickering couple who only want to finish their shopping and drive home. But their car is sabotaged, and when darkness hits, black kids in whiteface with machetes and machine guns are after them.
One scowling stranger (Frank Grillo) has armed himself to the teeth, armored his Dodge Charger and set out for revenge this night. But these people in jeopardy fall into his path and interfere with his plans.
Purge 2 is more overtly about race and class as our mixed group of five tries to make its way to the safety of dawn (when The Purge ends) without getting slaughtered by a mysterious “army” or murderous oligarchs or black revolutionaries. It’s closer to a sermon. And it’s very close to being an utter bore.
DeMonaco, who has written thrillers such as The Negotiator, plainly was given this sequel order as a rush job and the lack of polish shows. Characters act against their self-interest as well as their morals. They stop to bicker in deadly situations and clumsily act as if they’ve read the dull, tin-eared script and know they aren’t in danger in this sequence, so they can chatter and traipse through this alley or down that subway tunnel without a care in the world.
To a one, they’re blase, only summoning up rage or terror once or twice in the third act. We don’t care for any one of them, and Grillo plays his hard-hearted killer with barely a hint of wit or heart.
That reduces the film to a first-person shooter video game with a dose of politics added. Maybe that’s the only way to experience Anarchy, with the viewer doing the shooting. Let’s hope DeMonaco has a piece of the spin-off game action, because The Purge has pretty much run its course as a violent big-screen social satire.
Cast: Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Zoe Soul, Kiele Sanchez.
Writer-director: James Monaco.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 100 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, adult themes. Playing at: area theaters.