Some films just don’t occasion much comment. The Purge: Anarchy is such a film. It’s not exactly bad, but it’s not especially good. It does at least try (vaguely) to be something more than a standard horror-thriller, and it does make more use of its premise than its predecessor, but it’s stuck with stock characters and mostly predictable scenarios. James DeMonaco does a decent-enough job of direction, but his script is pretty underwhelming.
It’s the sixth (I think) annual Purge. Once a year, all crime is legal for 12 hours–those who do not go out to wreak havoc barricade themselves inside. Crime has apparently dropped to near-nil, unemployment has plummeted, and the economy is booming. Not everyone is happy about this–an activist named Carmelo (Michael K. Williams) calls for an end to the Purge, noting that it targets the poor and the weak. He promises a pending revolution. The film introduces us to three sets of characters:
- The Sergeant (Frank Grillo), who seeks revenge on the man who accidentally killed his son;
- Eva Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo) and her daughter Cali (Zoë Soul), who are trying to hide from the Purge in their apartment but who are forced into the streets;
- Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez), a young couple who are contemplating separation, whose plans to make it home before the Purge commences are foiled when their car is sabotaged.
Long story short, Eva, Cali, Shane, and Liz are all united in their attempts to escape the Purgers (some solo agents, others marauding gangs), and they must rely on the Sergeant to protect them–which he does, showing the humanity that still dwells beneath his hard-bitten exterior. Much blood is shed.
I never saw The Purge, because it seemed like a waste of a good premise; why introduce the idea of a massive societal event and then make a home-invasion thriller? I’m sure budgetary considerations had something to do with it, but still, it seemed like a strange decision. Anarchy broadens the scope, though not by as much as I had hoped; at one point a flaming bus hurtles by in the background, hinting at greater chaos beyond the edge of the frame. Granted, the budget still wasn’t very high ($9 million, according to Wikipedia), but I’m still a bit disappointed.
But relative breadth of scope isn’t the issue with Anarchy. The issue instead lies with the film’s relative levels of provocation and entertainment. There are moments that touch upon how the Purge only enhances the socio-economic divide; Eva’s dying father actually offers himself up as a sport-sacrifice to a wealthy family in exchange for a $100,000 legacy to Eva and Cali, a potentially powerful moment that, oddly enough, isn’t mentioned again. The film never digs deep enough–near the end, when Carmelo and his followers show up to rescue the protagonists from a group of 1%-ers who are hunting them for sport, we never see the outcome of this confrontation–we cut away to the Sergeant, accompanied by Eva and Cali, continuing to pursue his vengeance.
So the film falls flat as provocation. What about as a simple thriller? Well, the characters don’t help there; for the most part they’re pretty one-dimensional figures–the embittered man-with-a-past, the smug yuppie, the damsel in distress, the innocent bystander, the precocious would-be activist. And the actors can’t bring that much life to the roles. Grillo and Ejogo are okay and Soul is decent, but Gilford is pretty bland and Sanchez gets tiresome. And there’s a distinct lack of memorable villains; the ice-cold Big Daddy (Jack Conley) is a solid presence, but he then delivers a fairly ridiculous revelation at the end which adds a twist the film never bothers to explore.
There are at least three major gaps in the story in the film’s final 10 minutes, and they seem less the product of a tight budget and more the result of authorial indifference. DeMonaco has a few good ideas in his script, but he doesn’t execute them well. So the hollow characters and the choppy plot keep the film from becoming truly thrilling. Because, really…do you really care about these characters?
The film still could’ve worked simply as a kinetically gory bloodbath, but the tone is so brutal and oppressive that it’s rarely fun. I appreciate that DeMonaco tried to have a little social commentary in his film, but since it isn’t enough to be thought-provoking, it just gets in the way of the entertainment factor. He does stage some good action scenes–and on a technical level, the film is generally pretty competent (though none of its facets deserve special mention). But that doesn’t change how lackluster it is at its core.
I still say there’s a good film to be made from the premise of The Purge, as long as the scope of the chaos and/or the social implications of a Purge were properly explored. It might not make for a thrill-ride, but it would probably pay greater dividends than this will end up doing (it’s made a profit, of course, but will anyone care in six months?). This, however, is just a few strong moments in search of that film. It’s not a truly bad film, but I’m not about to recommend it.