Despite its intriguing central idea, the first The Purge didn’t amount to much more than a lackluster home invasion movie. Which was a shame and a waste of its dystopian setting, a version of the United States of America where The Purge is enacted, a night during which all crime is completely legal. The sequel, subtitled Anarchy, smartly decides to open up its setting and story, which allows its central premise to really shine. While writer/director James DeMonaco’s vision owes a lot to films like Mad Max and The Warriors, The Purge: Anarchy‘s world is fresh enough and unique enough to warrant exploration; given the fact that all bets are off for just one night, there’s a very interesting and twisted tension present in the film that sets The Purge: Anarchy apart. In most post-apocalyptic films there are no laws because society has collapsed and everyone’s out for themselves trying to survive, but here many civilized people embrace their darkness and animalistic side during twelve hours, actively choosing to cause murder and mayhem to vent rage or dark desires. It’s an effective and horrific notion that, right from the start, makes you feel uneasy, which is the movie’s greatest accomplishment.
Unfortunately the rest of the film doesn’t fare as well. While its first act is very effective, an act that explores the calm before the storm and sees people reinforce their homes, buy guns from shady vendors or rush home to their loved ones, the rest of the movie resorts to mindless violence that’s so dumb that it fails to keep you invested for the remainder of the movie. Despite a premise that begs to be explored on a more psychological level, Anarchy serves up grindhouse-like bloodshed instead of focusing on what this night means to those who go out to purge, those who lock themselves in or those who find themselves outside on Purge Night through a matter of circumstance. Apart from Frank Grillo’s main character, a man who is out to seek revenge, everyone else roaming the streets is a one-note bloodthirsty psychopath, something that quickly fails to be interesting. The other characters Grillo’s strong silent type is forced to form a posse with are also very thinly drawn, and fail to add anything interesting to the narrative: they’re all defined by a single character trait which also means that they go on and on about the same stuff over the course of the movie, which doesn’t make you relate to them but makes you grow annoyed with them. Additionally the horror trope that sees people act incredibly stupid to propel the plot forward often rears its ugly head and, coupled with the excruciatingly written dialogue, this makes The Purge: Anarchy a cringeworthy movie for the most part.
Before long Grillo is the one and only reason you keep watching the film. The actor exudes a raw charisma and silent charm that makes you immediately root for him, even though he doesn’t have all that much to work with here. Despite that fact Grillo does manage to add a lot of layers to his character by delivering a performances that blends many emotions to convey that this man is struggling with his decision to seek vengeance. Without words he makes you see that this man is desperately trying to hold on to his humanity, but that he’s also trying to embrace the viciousness needed to bring about an act he feels he needs to fulfill. It’s a strong leading turn, but it’s one that deserved a far better movie built around it. While the movie occasionally stumbles upon some very haunting and powerful moments, like a burning bus that barrels down the street behind Grillo’s character, most of the time it opts for easy, dumb and loud, with amateurishly shot shoot-outs that do little to evoke scares or tension. Instead, most of the time, Anarchy feels like a video game: once our heroes have cleared one room, it’s on the next where they will face off with a new group of enemies. It’s bland and uninspired writing that really detracts from the more outlandish and eerie moments the film’s premise provides. The movie’s biggest flaw is that DeMonaco doesn’t know how to maintain tension, which is a problem; when you fail to generate tension in a motion picture about people being hunted down, things get boring very fast.
What also doesn’t quite work is The Purge: Anarchy‘s attempt at social commentary. There’s a subplot that involves Michael K. Williams as a resistance leader of sorts, but the motivations and lines of his character are so ham-fisted that’s it’s very hard to take all of it seriously. It’s a missed opportunity because the way the movie illustrates how wealth influences the likelihood of surviving The Purge, and how Purge Night is celebrated in some circles, is actually very intriguing. The movie’s biggest problem is just that is has some very neat ideas, but that the execution of these ideas leaves a lot to be desired. The Purge‘s central premise is a horror and sci-fi notion that could really lead to the exploration of some very universal and pressing themes, but what the movies actually offer viewers is little more than schlocky pulp. This makes the both The Purge movies frustrating because it’s not hard to see what potential this franchise has, but it’s also not hard to see how quickly and easily this potential is being wasted.
Despite a strong central idea and a strong lead performance by Frank Grillo, The Purge: Anarchy is utterly unimpressive. Terrible dialogue, one-note characters and a nonsensical plot keep it from being good and often make it eyerollingly bad. 3/10