On the night of the annual purge, when all crime is legal for twelve hours, five people are stuck outside on the streets of Los Angeles. They must band together if they have any hopes of surviving the most dangerous night of the year.
2013’s The Purge had kind of an ingenious concept; what if, as a way to cleanse our systems, all crime was legal for one night? You could rob, rape, kill, or even jaywalk without any worry of legal recourse. As the film devolved into nothing more than a fairly typical home invasion thriller by its second act however, it became clear that there was no interest in exploring the deeper subtext of what such an annual event would bring with it, both politically and socially.
This second film opens somewhat promisingly as we’re introduced to various characters around town who will inevitably converge and collide before the night is over (and, it’s kind of refreshing to see a vision of the future that’s not particularly futuristic). This “purge meets Altman” pastiche soon gives way to a rather generic action film that introduces a lot of solid ideas, but refuses to follow-up on any of them. The concept of the government joining in on the purge as a form of population control could be fantastic, but only mere hints are dropped. The resistance movement (headed by Michael K. Williams in a fun, but overly familiar role) that rises up could’ve opened things up tremendously, but their methods wind up becoming something that I’d love to give the filmmakers credit for serving as an ironic statement on violence solved by more violence, but I think was really just an excuse for extra machine gun fire. There are also great threads thrown in involving the chance for the sick and dying to provide for their families by offering themselves up to be purged for money, purgers choosing their victims before the night begins but having to wait for the sirens to actually touch them, letting hatred build for a full year to confront family for their wrongdoings, and the unwritten rule about never saving anyone on purge night, but none ever go below surface level.
On the character front, our core group are a bit of a mixed bag. Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez are fine as a couple on the verge of splitting up, but they are criminally (but, I suppose it's legally on the night of the purge) underwritten. Because we have seen a movie before, we know that the extreme circumstances they will go through will bring about talks of reconciliation, but we also have a hard time caring. These characters serve only as means to continually put the much more interesting folks further and further into danger (much like the children of the first film), so we’re never invested in them. One of the two also makes an odd character shift late in the proceedings that seems to only serve the purpose of needing to make sure there are fewer participants in the following scene.
The rest of the bunch prove to be a touch more successful. Frank Grillo is stoic enough as the nameless action-hero leader of the group, while Carmen Ejogo and Zoë Soul are the most sympathetic as a mother and daughter who have already been through a lot, forced onto the streets when their building is invaded by an army of purgers.
Not everything is completely horrible – the pack mentality and masks are creepier this time around (although, every time a man wearing a blank faced mask stares silently while cocking his head to the side, which is many, it will instantly remind you of Halloween). One particular scene involving a family gathering (and, I’ll say no more) is so good and provides such a great slow build, that it seems to come from a different movie entirely.
The final act gets some mileage out of the auction and hunt of potential ‘purgees,’ but it certainly feels as if Eli Roth had already done it (and, if Eli Roth has already done it, then, by definition, it means someone else must have already done it, too). There’s no question that writer/director James DeMonaco seems to side with the lower class over the upper, but he tries just a bit too hard to portray normalcy in the grotesque. It’s only the year 2023 and the rich have already become so ridiculously blasé and so blasély ridiculous in their approach to the purge and killing the 99%, that you’re instantly yanked out of it. It could have been satirical, but it just doesn’t play. It seems that DeMonaco is trying to raise important questions about how different facets of society would react if such circumstances were real, which would be great, but the reliance on absolute ridiculousness undermines those questions before he ever has a chance to give us his answers.
I think the largest failings have to do with the fact that, after two films, we’re still just seeing what happens on ‘the night.’ Sure, it makes for some decent thrills and action set pieces, but what about the other 364 days of the year? We’re expected to believe we now live in a world where the purge is a reality, and works perfectly, so why not give us a taste of what it’s like when you’re not just trying to survive till morning? What about the pure anguish leading up to the purge by both those who are and are not participating? How about a first time participant? What about the aftermath? Whether legal or not, raping and killing has GOT to weigh on your conscience when you spend the rest of the year working a 9-to-5. What about the revenge aspect? The purge is designed to get crime out of our system so that we won’t do it throughout the year, but what about those that DON’T cleanse, but still lost a loved one and now have a bloodlust (we actually spend a good part of the film assuming that could be a particular character’s backstory, only to find out that it’s far more generic and common than that)?
There’s so much more to explore outside of the two sirens that begin and end the purge each year (you’ll actually let out an unintended laugh at the actions of the characters in the finale when the end siren goes off, ending this year’s purge). I’d love to be given some insight on two neighbors who may either be hacking each other up with machetes or waving at each other as they are mowing the lawn, depending upon what day the calendar says it is. Heck, what about the poor guys who have to clean up all the bodies or the effect of having to get up and go to work the next day while stepping over them? That’s something you’d never get used to and would have been interesting to see.
Or, if exploring that world is too daunting a task and you insist on only covering those 12 hours, the series might have at least been more effective in reverse – give us a worldview with the first film, introducing the situation, and then let the second film break our hearts when we watch a single family suffer through the night. I know it doesn’t seem fair to criticize a movie for what it’s not if those aren’t the intentions, but you can’t help but see the film as a series of missed opportunities. As it is, it feels like a quick cash grab in this day and age of horror series' with annual entries.
The Purge: Anarchy improves on the original in almost every single way, while somehow still managing to not be very good. The concept, however, is strong enough that, amazingly, I’d still be willing to give a third film a shot in hopes that they finally get it right. Normally, I’m a big believer in a film’s creator maintaining control through the entire series, but in this particular case, while James DeMonaco has excellent ideas, it may be time to step down as writer/director into the role of creative consultant and give someone else a crack at those ideas. This sequel seems to want to have the lofty take on violence in society of A Clockwork Orange, but winds up as more of just the running around in the dark trying not to get killed of Judgment Night.