When the original Purge film exploded into theaters at around this time last year, it was met with a fair amount of distain. While it’s premise which dealt with a near-future America that on one night a year indulges in any criminal act it sees fit was praised for it’s creativity, it was heavily criticized for not following through on that promise. Instead of actually getting to see the chaos that surly erupts from such a holiday, we were treated to a standard home invasion thriller in which Ethan Hawke defended his home from a group of purgers. While I happened to enjoy the film for it’s palpable suspense and solid performances, I certainly agreed with a great deal of these complaints. Fortunately, unlike other franchises where the sequel spawns quickly, it seems as though those involved have actually listened to these criticisms, and have taken it upon themselves to deliver the purge film we all want to see. But should we want to see it?
The film takes place on the night of the 6th nationwide Purge, and tells the story of three groups of characters who come to collide. Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) are an eroding couple who’s car engine is taken out by a group of Purge extremists who stalk them though the night. Eva (Cameron Ejogo) and Cali (Zoe Soul) are a mother and daughter living in poverty who are dragged into the streets by a group of mercenaries, who are then saved in bad-ass fashion by our third, and most important player. Sargent Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) is a somber lone wolf on a mission to kill the man who murdered his young son. While he absolutely does not want company, he finds it in his heart to protect these two couples, and the film progresses as they all try to survive the night.
The increased ambition on display here is very commendable indeed. It would have been very easy for returning writer director James DeMonaco to lazily spin his wheels and give us yet another confined semi-slasher film. Instead, he delivers a film that is wholly different from it’s predecessor. In fact, what we have here isn’t so much a horror film, but an action one, and that style suits this conceit much more. We see every bit of the mayhem going on these LA streets, and it’s everything one would expect. People senselessly brutalize each other in plain view, snipers hide in the rooftops, and a rebellion against the Purge’s clear population control motive has started to brew. These sensory details are brought to gritty realization very effectively, DeMonaco’s hectic directing giving the film a very gritty, down to earth sensibility. The social commentary on class violence is also very welcome here, and is realized much better here than in the original.
Even with all of that insanity going on, what really anchors this movie and makes it work is Frank Grillo in the lead. I’ve admired this guy’s work for a couple of years now (especially his fantastic performance in The Grey) and here he proves that he is more than capable of being a leading man. Leo is a stoic, focussed anti-hero with very little patience and a heavy bloodlust, but at the end of the day, he’s a regular man who’s been torn apart by the loss of his son, manifesting the theme that this event brings out the demons and badasses in normal, every day people. Grillo expertly navigates both sides of this character, excelling as a dominating physical and mental presence, but also really selling the more vulnerable moments with a rawness most actors would not bring to this, particularly in one of the film’s climatic moments. A true action star is born here.
Where the movie starts to suffer is in the writing, and secondary performances. Not only are all of the other characters fairly flat already but none of the other actors really bring anything to the table. They’re not bad by any means, but they just never really get the chance to shine, and are completely overshadowed by Grillo. Also, the dialogue in a great deal of scenes can just get flat out silly. Characters will repeat the same two or three phrases over and over again to each other, never seeming to hear the other people in the room, and when we come to meet our wealthily antagonists, they’re portrayed in such an unbelievably stereotypical way that it approaches the point of pure silliness, distracting from the gritty tone of the rest of the film.
While the action scenes are very well put together, they could have used a touch more versatility. Essentially all of them are Grillo and company running from a group of gunmen for a beat, Grillo telling everyone to stay put, and then kicking ass. I really could have done without these ancillary characters, and had a movie where Grillo takes on this whole crazy world on his own in a verity of insane situations on his way to justice. It’s still a pretty tense, exciting movie, but the structure definitely could have been opened up even more.
Despite some awkward touches, The Purge: Anarchy is a major improvement over it’s predecessor. It’s a taut, suspenseful nail biter with a spectacular lead, and an actual brain in it’s head, which is much more than you can say for a great deal of these cheap franchise flicks. I certainly am looking forward to seeing this outlandish world be expanded even further in future films, and if this upward trend continues, who knows, we just might have a Purge film that transcends it’s trashy roots into being a great film. For now though, I’ll settle for this pretty good one.