Amber Waves of Pain, by David Bax
Maybe if I start by rehashing all the things that didn’t work with last year’s The Purge, it will become clear why, in comparison, the sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, is rather enjoyable. The first film took a lunkheaded, high concept premise – all crime is legal for 12 hours a year so citizens have a release for their worst impulses – and then took every step possible to steer away from the mayhem such an arrangement would seem to promise. It also asked us to take this conceit not as winking, overblown satire but as a bone-dry and serious contemplation of the privilege inherent to the upper class. Anarchy is, on the other hand, much closer to the movie we shamelessly expected: a swan dive into ludicrous exploitation violence and B-movie suspense.
Anarchy brings together a disparate group of non-wealthy Americans on Purge night. A waitress and her teenage daughter, a couple on the verge of separation, and a grieving father find themselves, for various reasons, out in the city streets while their fellow countrymen and women “release the beast.” They will have to stick together and depend on one another to survive the night until the siren sounds and the snuff version of American Gladiators closes for another year.
Writer/director James DeMonaco returns, but with an invigorating surge of confidence and ambition. His targets this time cover a vast range. Active hostility from the haves toward the have-nots; racial imbalance across the classes; the selfish pettiness humans can exhibit, whether borne from comfortable complacency or from hopeless frustration; the way ghettoization turns the lower classes against one another; the potential for violent revolution on the part of the oppressed. These are just some the thematic curtains hung on each scene depicting vicious beatings, large-caliber bullets obliterating flesh, bodies being crushed by cars, blood-drenched women wandering the streets and all the other pulpy scenarios DeMarco concocts. While it’s good that he refuses to cynically treat these issues lightly, it’s also a bit numbing when the messages, simple as they are, are so much louder than the gunshots.
As pretentious as Anarchy gets in its polemics, it is wildly unpretentious in its action. Big cars, big guns and big explosives rule the day. Frank Grillo, as the gruff but psychologically wounded father and de facto leader of the group, barks and growls his lines more than he speaks them. Conversely, the movie’s Big Bad barely speaks at all. With veteran tough guy character actor Jack Conley’s face, he doesn’t need to, particularly when that face is half drenched in blood.
Despite a preoccupation with weaponry and vehicles, The Purge: Anarchy still has its roots more in the genre of horror than action. When used well, that influence means there’s a creeping dread waiting around every corner and just beyond the throw of every flashlight in the dark. The other side of the horror coin, though, means that we get scenes of women screaming at the sight of rats and of women falling down while being chased that were tired clichés before most of the cast was born. It’s worth noting, however, that in another brawny blockbuster-filled summer, this movie passes the Bechdel test with flying colors.
Ultimately a tick or two above mediocre, it’s hard to say how (or even if) The Purge: Anarchy will be remembered. For one thing, its solid employment of downtown Los Angeles as a living nightmare-scape won’t fit in with the city’s growing redefinition. These characters aren’t likely to make use of the DTLA hashtag any time soon; the movie is kind of the anti-(500) Days of Summer. But in the immediate present, it at least takes part in a relevant conversation about our nation’s economic divides. The FOX newscasters who shout “class warfare” at the slightest provocation are going to have a fit if they bother to see it.