Amid so many floundering studio tentpoles, last summer’s The Purge struck an unlikely chord. Its outlandish yet provocative premise – supposing a near-future in which social order is maintained by way of an annual lawless free-for-all – was a hook worthy of Shirley Jackson and the Occupy movement alike, couched within a standard hide-and-seek home-invasion thriller.
The film was made for a cool $3 million and turned a mighty profit, and so, a year later, we find ourselves inevitably greeted by its sequel. The Purge: Anarchy wisely broadens its focus to several sets of characters on the streets of Los Angeles: There’s Shane (Gilford) and Liz (Sanchez), two dumb kids stranded by car trouble at the worst possible hour; Eva (Ejogo) and Cali (Soul), a mother and daughter whose plans to hunker down prove futile; and Sergeant (Grillo), a Punisher-like vigilante whose conscience ultimately gets the better of him. Before you can say Magnolia with full mags, all five reluctantly team up with one another in order to make it through the night.
Writer/director DeMonaco returns to the series with the burden of exposition already eliminated, allowing him to treat downtown L.A. as a cruel playground where every intersection brings with it the promise of a new threat: Sergeant and company run afoul of white-collar poachers, territorial snipers, and mask-wearing gangs, who bring to mind The Warriors. The story has a welcome sense of continuous momentum, and what’s more, DeMonaco has a better handle on both his skewering of the entitled upper class (not as pointed as Paul Verhoeven’s ultraviolent satire, but a start) and the righteous anger of the targeted lower class (personified by Michael K. Williams’ resistance leader, Carmelo).
Our lot of victims-to-be could have been a bit more endearing – romantically rocky Shane and Liz like to state the obvious, while young Cali constantly serves as the group’s ideological mouthpiece – but it is refreshing to see a reliable character actor like Grillo (Warrior, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) finally get the spotlight. His Sergeant is a suitably brooding antihero, as prone to compassion as he is to ruthlessness, and when his story reaches its logical conclusion, he injects some welcome angst into an otherwise mindless marathon of murder.
To that end, these films double as their own best metaphor, inviting audiences to cheer on an annual dose of bloodshed as much as question its moral value. It’s silly, to be sure, but here’s hoping that next year’s massacre shows at least this much improvement.
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