The Purge : Anarchy (2014)

Following the success of last year’s dystopian nightmare The Purge, which squandered a half-decent idea by limiting the action to one suburban household, the sequel widens the scope significantly by encompassing an entire city. The Purge: Anarchy follows three interconnecting stories, each representing a different faction of a troubled society, from a poor mother and daughter, to a middle class couple on the brink of separation and finally a vigilante hell-bent on revenge.

The concept of the purge itself is clever, and potentially terrifying, but it was mishandled before because the film was spent wondering what was going on outside, instead of indoors where the family was stuck. Thus, it amounted to little more than the standard home invasion thriller, only with far less bloodshed. This time around it really is, as the title suggests, anarchy with bodies strewn everywhere and a near-constant stream of bullets.

In spite of this, Anarchy is a sanitised affair – presumably to achieve a lower rating, thereby attracting the multiplex crowd. As a result, although it’s a much rougher watch than its predecessor, it never feels as urgent as it ought to, and in keeping the deaths mostly gun-related, it plays a bit like a video game, too. There are some great sequences, in particular a stand-off on a bridge early on, but these are largely bloodless, with the carnage only hinted at.

When the action dies down, and De Monaco’s script is given room to breathe, Anarchy slows to a snail’s pace. The characters are developed enough that their struggle feels real – although there’s a bit too much “this is my right, motherfucker!” at first – but there isn’t much for them to discuss apart from how the hell they’re going to get off the streets. Disappointingly, the painted-face teenagers who adorn the posters are given pretty short shrift, in spite of a great introduction.

Relative newcomer Frank Grillo’s wounded ex-cop is perhaps the most intriguing character, while Zach Gilford (last seen in the dull Devil’s Due) is an empathetic everyman, but his dilemma with ex Kiele Sanchez doesn’t really deliver. In contrast, Carmen Ejogo and Zoë Soul are both terrific as a ballsy mother-daughter duo. Representing the poor faction, who are either offered up to rich folk or hunted down and massacred during the purge, their struggle is the most involving and they do a good job of fighting back against their oppressors.

Anarchy has a fairly heavy-handed political message about the rich/poor divide, along with government control of the masses (we learn high-ranking officials are immune from the purge, and can pretty much hunt others at their leisure). It’s a frightening idea, and certain key sequences play into it well, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before and without the requisite gore it doesn’t quite work. In particular, De Monaco owes a debt to the Elite Hunting Club, which he apes in one memorable, yet ultimately pointless set-piece towards the end.

Much like the infamous Hostel trilogy, there’s an element of voyeurism here that is quite uncomfortable. De Monaco asks whether it’s ever OK to kill someone, without first figuring out the answer for himself. Grillo’s hardened ex-officer is told, in no uncertain terms, that the purge is for ending lives, not saving them. However, this doesn’t gel with the rest of the film, or the too-neat denouement that wraps everything up just in time for a siren to sound, ending the madness for another year.

De Monaco adopts a shaky, handheld style that lends a lot of urgency to the proceedings, and the moments when the protagonists are stuck outside, on the streets of downtown LA, are the most tense and frightening. There are certain scenes that are quite disturbing, such as a group of people being ploughed down by rapid gunfire from a man in a truck, with an American flag branded baseball cap planted proudly atop his head. There is a message about America’s weapons’ laws here, but it’s not terribly clear on which side of the fence De Monaco falls as guns are often used for good, for want of a better term.

Anarchy is at its most effective in its depiction of how otherwise normal people turn so easily on their loved ones. These are the moments when we, as an audience, are forced to ask ourselves what we’d do in the same situation. There are a lot of great ideas at play, but few of them land because the violence isn’t gory enough to really disturb, and the predicament of the central characters isn’t quite desperate enough to elicit our empathy – even though a final act killing seeks to shock us into submission.

Unlike its predecessor, The Purge: Anarchy won’t leave you wanting to purge. It’s definitely an improvement, and it asks a lot of important questions, but the filmmakers’ stance is never clear so in the end it all feels a bit hollow and fruitless. Perhaps a third instalment will flesh the concept out further.

Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

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