The first “Purge” movie was an incredibly stupid horror-thriller dragged down by its comically far-fetched concept, cardboard villains and idiotic characters, but it also made a lot of money on a micro-sized budget, so it was hardly a surprise when Universal greenlit another installment. As you might expect from a sequel written and directed by the same guy responsible for the original, “The Purge: Anarchy” is plagued by many of the same issues, although it’s a slight improvement thanks to the decision to move the action out into the city rather than stay contained within a single household. In fact, unlike the home invasion plot of the first film, “Anarchy” has shed itself almost entirely of all horror elements, aiming for something more along the lines of a retro John Carpenter movie, only not as good.
In an attempt to lower the national crime rate and control overpopulation, the country’s newly elected government – the New Founding Fathers of America – have enacted an annual holiday known as The Purge, a 12-hour period where all crime (including theft, murder and rape) is completely legal. It’s designed to provide citizens with an outlet for their repressed urges, and it actually works, but only if you’re lucky enough to be on the right side of the poverty line. Those who can’t afford protection are easy targets, like single mother Eva (Carmen Ejogo), who’s just trying to make it through another Purge alive with her daughter Cali (Zoe Soul). When a well-armed group of assailants raid their apartment building and take them outside to be executed in the streets, they’re saved by a mysterious stranger (Frank Grillo) seeking revenge on the man who killed his son. Along the way, they’re joined by a married couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) that’s been stranded in the city after their car breaks down on the highway, and they must work together to survive the night against psychotic gangs, twisted one-percenters and the government’s personal hit squad.
“The Purge: Anarchy” is much more action-oriented than its predecessor, less concerned with building suspense than watching its would-be victims fight off a never-ending onslaught of crazies, and in that respect, it’s very reminiscent of cult films like “The Warriors” and “Assault on Precinct 13.” Curiously, writer/director James DeMonaco penned the screenplay for the 2005 remake of the latter, so he’s clearly a fan of those kinds of movies, and it shows in this open-world sequel that expands upon the idea introduced in the first film. Unfortunately, there are still so many questions about the sheer stupidity of the premise (like why these sociopaths don’t commit crimes other days of the year, or why people don’t just leave the country instead of barricading themselves inside their homes) that it’s hard to completely invest in the story. There’s an interesting subplot involving an anti-government rebellion led by Michael K. Williams, but it’s never fully explored (perhaps they’re saving that for Part Three), while the half-hearted attempts at social commentary are difficult to take seriously when DeMonaco is constantly cutting away to people being mindlessly murdered.
And just like the original, the movie is packed with one-dimensional characters that make a series of bad decisions and deliver even worse dialogue. The couple played by Gilford and Sanchez, for instance, think that it’s a good idea to be driving around town (and even stopping to get groceries) with only an hour remaining before the Purge commences. So when the gas line on their vehicle is cut by a gang hunting them like prey, it’s hard to feel sorry for them. The one exception to that rule is Grillo’s nameless hero, the only person in the film with anything resembling an arc. He’s been one of my favorite character actors for quite some time now, so it’s nice to see him finally cast in a leading role, even if he’s not given much to do beyond the whole silent badass shtick. Amid all the stupidity, bad acting and unintentionally funny moments, Grillo adds a touch of humanity to an otherwise hateful movie that at least makes it watchable, and that’s something not even Ethan Hawke or Lena Headey were able to do in the first one.