Written and Directed by: James DeManaco
Starring: Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, and Zach Gilford
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
An American tradition.
Remember this time last year when it looked like they blew it with The Purge by wasting a pretty cool concept on a standard issue home invasion thriller? It turns out that this didnít stop the film from becoming a pretty sizeable hit (viva la Blumhouse model), thus granting writer/director James DeManaco another shot at it. Even better, it seems like he took note of the filmís critics, as The Purge: Anarchy is almost exactly what its predecessor should have been: a bigger, more unhinged peek into this dystopia that embraces its concept even if it still isnít engaging its socio-political subtexts beyond their surface level. Maybe a more apt title would have been The Purge: Mulligan.
Instead, it is indeed a little bit more anarchic: rather than honing in on one middle class familyís bout with zealous Purgers, this follow-up follows a larger swath of possible victims. As the annual Purge looms, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) is hell-bent on using the lawless 12 hour period to avenge the death of his son. Despite the protests of his ex-wife, he hits the streets armed to the teeth to fend off zealous Purgers. However, his quest for vengeance is derailed when he suddenly finds himself in the role of guardian angel for a quartet of helpless folks that have been stranded in the streets: married couple Shane and Liz (Zach Gilford & Kiele Sanchez), hard-luck waitress Eva (Carmen Ejogo), and her daughter, Cali (Zoe Soul).
I donít know if thereís any online record to verify this, but I thought that The Purge would have been better suited as a riff on The Warriors and Escape From New York, and thatís pretty much what Anarchy is: one of those post-apocalyptic Point-A-to-Point-B flicks where the protagonists have to fend off homicidal threats from all corners. While Anarchy isnít quite as feverish, deranged, or as stylish as the films it recalls, itís propulsive enough to serve up some cheap thrills under the guise of thinly-veiled political musings (in fact, you might even say the veil has been purged).
DeManaco rarely scripts a dull moment into the proceedings once the characters make it to the streets, where they often find themselves without a car and with minimal weaponry. Los Angeles is transformed into a bizarre hellhole hereóin keeping with the filmís theme of a ďnation rebornĒ through the fires of an unholy ritual, itís not an overt wasteland of dystopic squalor but rather an unnervingly sleek cityscape. Yet thereís a complete menace to it all the same, even before DeManaco introduces audiences to the seedy underbelly; one of the first filmís strongest points was its brief bit of ominous world-building. The most disturbing dystopias appear to only be a half-step removed from our own reality, and Anarchy thrives on that notion, at least until the shit starts to fling against the fan.
Iíd like to say the fan spits it back out furiously, but DeMonaco isnít interested in delivering pure pulp. As such, Anarchy isnít as colorful or weird as other films cut from this cloth, as evidenced by the generic paramilitary outfit and gang of masked hooligans terrorizing the protagonists. Granted, there are some broad flourishes in the form of a giant anti-vehicle gun and a particularly loony family that sees The Purge as an excuse to exorcise their drama, but, for the most part, Anarchy is played rather straight, which is a bit of a gambit considering the ludicrous premise.
It pays off though, as DeMonaco wisely grounds the proceedings and funnels it through the filmís most compelling presence in Grillo. If he hadnít already joined the Marvel Universe as Crossbones in The Winter Soldier, Iíd say heíd be a perfect candidate for The Punisher because thatís essentially who he is here: full of muted rage, sorrow, regret, yet somehow reassuring and cool (it helps that he just looks like a badass). While the characters surrounding him are functional for the story, Grillo provides the essential pathos needed for a film that requires sympathy for its victimsóin a world gone mad, thereís a semblance of humanity to latch onto, even if itís at the service of a bit of a treacly arc. You donít really expect a film like this to feel so damn sentimental by the end; Anarchy is a tonal rollercoaster that hits some silly, rousing peaks and grim valleys.
I suppose the rollercoaster comparison adequately summarizes the filmís aims: itís meant to thrill (and it often does), and its political subtext becomes something of an elephant in the room. Ignoring it is impossible, especially when DeManaco delivers it with an even heavier hand this time around: just in case you didnít grasp that The Purge is an allegory for how the rich prey on the poor in the original, the sentiment is basically painted in neon this time around and literalized by the deranged gatherings where affluent Purgers put possible victims up on an auction block. The daughter even idolizes a radical freedom-fighter whose larger purpose is telegraphed the minute he incites his followers to take arms against their oppressors.
All of this is timely and on-point, of course, but itís all so obvious and underexplored. One wishes the film were more incendiary in some way instead of soft-pedaling into thematic confusion (it lionizes the freedom fighters yet preaches non-violence all at once). As absorbing as Grilloís personal vendetta is, you canít help but wonder if the film would be better served by angling for bigger fish and frying the hell out of them. In this respect, DeManaco again stumbles by narrowing his focus to individual moral quandaries and reducing the larger implications to a footnote. Since Anarchy is a better-realized film (in that itís not a bunch of dummies skulking about a poorly-shot home invasion movie), itís not as noticeable a misstep here, but itís one all the same. Iím still not convinced DeManaco has completely cracked this clever hook, though heís come much closer to doing so this time. Buy it!
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