Purge, The: AnarchyReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/17/14 18:14:12
At least once a year, a low-budget horror film comes along that, thanks to the right combination of an ingenious premise or gimmick, a slick promotional campaign effective exploiting said premise or gimmick and the sometimes questionable taste of the moviegoing public, exceeds all expectations at the box office and inspires its producers to strike while the iron is hot by quickly churning out a sequel that will hit theaters maybe a year later in order to milk it for all that it is worth before the next big thing comes along. From a financial standpoint, these films are a pretty good idea as they are usually produced on the cheap as well but as entertainments, the results are often pretty dire, as anyone who sat through "Friday the 13th Part 2," "Nightmare on Elm St. Part 2: Freddy's Revenge," "Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows," "Saw 2," "Hostel 2," "Paranormal Activity 2" and many others can blearily attest.The latest surprise genre hit to get this treatment is "The Purge," a stupid and grisly little item that surprised Hollywood by becoming one of last summer's most profitable titles despite the fact that few people seemed to actually like. Now, a little more than a year since the debut of the original, we have "The Purge: Anarchy" and while I will admit that it does show a little more ambition than the other sequels I have mentioned (with the exception of "Book of Shadows," a film that had a fascinating concept that was undermined by questionable execution and post-production meddling), it is still an agonizingly dumb and unpleasant item that is nowhere near as provocative or compelling as it likes to pretend itself to be.
For those of you who have already forgotten "The Purge" or never bothered to see it in the first place, I, in the name of sheer laziness, offer up the description of its central conceit that I included as part of my review of the original. "In the not-too-distant future, America is on the brink of economic collapse when a new political faction is swept into office and by the year 2022, America is now a peaceful and prosperous place with an unemployment rate hovering at around 1%. The secret to the country's new success is an annual event known as The Purge. Every March 22, from 7 PM to 7 AM, all crime is now legal and anything--murder, rape, illegally downloading Taylor Swift songs--is up for grabs for anyone who wants to take part. The theory is that by venting their emotions in such a brutal way, the populace will be able to rid themselves of such feelings and continue to be prosperous and productive members of society. On the other hand, since the rich are able to afford the best weapons with which to attack or defend themselves or elaborate home security systems to hide behind if they choose not to participate, some dissenters believe that by killing off those on the lower rungs of society, the purgers are helping their leaders lower the unemployment rate and rid the country of those deemed to be undesirable."
In theory, that sounds vaguely interesting in a quasi-fascist Ayn Rand-meets-"A Clockwork Orange" by way of "Grand Theft Auto" way but, having established that premise, writer-director James DeMonaco proceeded to squander it completely by ignoring the wide-ranging implications (not to mention the enormous number of questions about how such a thing could possibly come to pass) and sticking us behind the walls of an ugly McMansion as a well-off family tries to fend off a group of bemasked thugs who are pursuing a homeless African-American man who has made his way into the house for safety. Aside from one or two glimpses of the outside mayhem, the film was little more than an ordinary home invasion thriller in the "Straw Dogs" mode that allowed viewers to savor the sadism on display without feeling bad about it since they were theoretically rooting for the family to make it through the night (with the possible exception of Ethan Hawke, of course).
This time around, DeMonaco, returning as writer and director, hits the streets to give viewers what they probably expected to see the first time around--a tour of the mean streets of a city--Los Angeles in this case--as they fill with psychopaths satisfying their bloodlust in the most grotesque ways imaginable and all in the name of what they believe to be the greater good. Of course, to show the mayhem from the perspective of those doing the purging might make some viewers uncomfortable--even though it might also yield a more interesting movie in the long run--and so it instead follows a group of five people who have found themselves out on the streets at the commencement of the Purge and who struggle to survive the long and increasingly violent night with madmen (and women) behind virtually every corner armed with some weapon of mass ickiness.
Among our sitting ducks this time around are Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez), a soon-to-divorce couple whose trip home runs into unscheduled complications when their car conks out right in the middle of Purge Central when the clock, among other things, goes boom. Then there is Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and Cali (Zoe Soul), a working-class mother and daughter whose plans to ride out the night inside their apartment are violently scrubbed when a mysterious squad of thugs break in and drag them out into the streets towards a waiting truck. Luckily for both duos, they are rescued at the last second by Sergeant (Frank Grillo), a brooding loner taking advantage of the Purge to get back at the rich fatcat who killed his son while driving drunk and who subsequently got off on one of those infamous technicalities so popular in hacky revenge sagas of this sort.
As the five try to make it through an evening--a journey that sees them encountering roving gangs of thugs, well-to-do psychopaths and what can only be described as the ugliest "Ugly Betty" episode ever produced--it quickly becomes apparent that "The Purge: Anarchy" is not going to be much of an improvement over its predecessor. Even though there was presumably a little more money in the budget to play around with this time around, it nevertheless looks and feels more like a cheesy direct-to-video release than the sequel to a proven success. It is clear that DeMonaco is trying to approximate the lean and economical narrative and cinematic stylings of Walter Hill and (especially) John Carpenter but he doesn't have the chops to pull it off. While they often present characters with only the merest trace of backstory or shading in order to let us get to know them almost exclusively through their actions, the people here are boring ciphers who are so devoid of interest that it is difficult to work up any sort of rooting interest in whether they live or die. Likewise, the scenes involving action and violence are certainly violent enough but are presented without either the grim grittiness that might have made the events seem truly horrific or the slick stylishness that might have at least made it at least queasily effective from a cinematic perspective. Instead, DeMonaco splits the difference and fails to make it work at all.
Even in the ways in which DeMonaco tries to expand the whole Purge conceit, he comes up short. We learn, for example, that wealthy people who wish to Purge without risking their lives on the streets now offer truly desperate people a large sum of money payable to their families in exchange for coming to their homes to serve as a sacrifice--sort of the Purge equivalent of ordering in--or hire thugs to round up potential victims to be auctioned off to the highest bidder at private hunting grounds. There are also suggestions of what the real designs of the government that introduced the Purge in the first place might really be--an upward redistribution of wealth at the expense of the lower classes. Unfortunately, these touches are nothing more than that--little more than dramatic parsley--and only serve to further underline the implausibility of the entire premise that will consume anyone who actually takes a moment or two to think things out. For a film with an outlandish premise like this to work, it has to be done in such a stylish and well-thought out manner that its inherent silliness doesn't dawn on you until you have arrived home. Here, instead of getting wrapped up in the details of the story, all I could do was wonder about what the cleanup crews had to deal with the next morning.Although superficially better than its predecessor (which says more about the crumminess of that film than anything else), "The Purge: Anarchy" is a squalid exercise that is both sadistic and dull in equal measure and which hardly comes close to approximating the chaos suggested by its subtitle. And yet, thanks to the popularity of the first one and a current lack of "R"-rated genre fare of late, it will no doubt pull in enough money from bored gorehounds looking for something to see, especially in relation to its presumably meager costs, to inspire at least one more sequel down the line. If I may, allow me to pitch two possible ideas for a hypothetical third film. For one, how about a faux-documentary chronicling the events that led to the Purge being developed in the first place culminating with a look at the very first Purge--I see a bunch of people milling around the street saying "Really? We can do this? No--why don't you go first. . . " For my other idea, why not show a Purge from the perspective of a Purger and force viewers to deal directly with the on-screen savagery and its implications without allowing them the out of rooting for the victims who only strike back when they have no choice. If the producers adopted one of these ideas, I am almost certain that the end results would either reinvigorate and justify the franchise or destroy it once and for all. Frankly, I am okay with either outcome.
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