In case you happen to have forgotten, The Purge was a movie with a fantastic premise that completely squandered it on a mediocre home invasion movie. That premise involved an eight-hour period, once every year, during which all crime — including murder, they emphasize — is legal. Allowing citizens to “purge” has reduced unemployment, crime rate, poverty, and so on. The Purge largely ignored its premise, though, and focused on a single family trying to avoid being killed by masked men and women trying to break into their house. The home invasion aspect wasn’t terrible, but as a waste of a great premise it was awful.
The Purge: Anarchy (should have been titled 2 Purge 2 Anarchy, because every sequel should get the 2 Fast 2 Furious treatment) fixes that problem by actually using this premise for something that actually needs it. Instead of one family, we center on three. Instead of a home invasion movie, it’s a quest for survival, redemption, and revenge. And the psychological, emotional, and moral aspects of the Purge that were only hinted at in the original are brought into clear view with the sequel.
Three groups of people become our central characters in The Purge: Anarchy. The de facto leader of the group is a man who goes by “Sergeant” (Frank Grillo), as he went out on Purge night intentionally, and came prepared. He’s got the guns and the know-how to use them. The second is a mother-daughter tandem of Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and Cali (Zoe Soul), who were dragged from their apartment building but were saved by Sergeant. Finally, we have Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez), who are planning to separate but you can bet will grow to love each other thanks to the trauma they’re about to experience. Their car breaks down and they wind up finding Sergeant as he’s saving Eva and Cali. Everyone eventually teams up.
These are — with all due respect — nobody actors. And I mean that as a positive. Even if you watch lots of movies, you’re likely not going to recognize more than one or two of them. The star power of an Ethan Hawke doesn’t exist in The Purge: Anarchy. That means that the actors won’t draw you out of the film because you recognize them and associate them with prior roles. It makes the experience feel more realistic. And The Purge: Anarchy thrives on immersing an audience and giving us the sense of panic that its characters constantly feel.
This is a good movie at keeping you on-edge. A murderer can spring from anywhere, or a trap could cripple one of our leads at any turn. You just don’t know what you’re going to get. As a movie that tries to generate suspense, it succeeds most of the time. It does sometimes rely a bit too much on jump scares, but they’re effective enough at startling, which is really all they should do.
More importantly, The Purge: Anarchy is concerned with bigger things than just its primary story. There are warring factions — those completely loving the Purge and those against it — the government may or may not be up to no good, the rich do some truly atrocious things, and it’s all far more interesting now that we’re exploring the bigger picture. In fact, if this film came first, I think The Purge might have come across as better. All the questions it left us with would already have answers, and that “wasted potential” I was harping on about wouldn’t be wasted; The Purge would feel just like a side-story, perhaps on a different year, and it would be just fine.
I’m not saying The Purge: Anarchy is perfect by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just far more what a Purge movie probably should be. It has a lot of cliche or predictable moments — two separate cars fail to start, okay? — its big action set piece is really not that entertaining, it starts to feel repetitive close to the end of its over-90-minute running time, its characters are largely archetypes with little to no development, and if you really, really think about it, the whole thing is kind of dumb. But, honestly, this is all okay. The movie is still fun. It’s still a marked improvement over its predecessor.
You know, I called the actors “nobodies,” and I feel kind of bad about that. They’re all much better than they were required to be here; they’re just not the type of people you know by name or face. I meant it descriptively, not insultingly. I hope they get bigger roles based on this one, but I have a feeling the only one studios will be looking at will be Frank Grillo, who has the look and perform the right attitude for an action hero.
The Purge: Anarchy is a couple of notches better than its predecessor. It doesn’t squander a great premise. Instead, it embraces it and explores it. It at least tries to have something to say, and while it might not be quite smart enough to say things most of the audience will know going in, at least it has ambitions and ideas. It also works quite well as a thriller, constantly keeping its audience engaged and in a mode of suspense. It even kind of works as an exploitation movie, at least when it comes to the ramped-up violence. All in all, The Purge: Anarchy is good and retroactively makes The Purge better.