What The Purge: Anarchy has going for it is ambition. Founded on a brilliant premise (almost all crime is legal for 12 hours a year) and backed up with cool, social commentary-lite ideas (an auction-like arena where the wealthy pay to hunt the poor, for instance), Anarchy (as well as the original Purge film) think big, yet execute small. Abandoning almost all horror film classifications for an underwhelming, low-risk action narrative, director James DeMonaco has many great ideas, and no idea what to do with them.
The sequel smartly expands the films’ (series’? soon-to-be franchise’s?) universe beyond the home-invasion setting of the first to the entire city of Los Angeles on annual Purge night. While Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) suits up for some good old-fashioned revenge purgin’, mom and daughter Eva and Cali (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul) are kidnapped from their apartment by a mysterious army of Purgers. Meanwhile, soon-to-be-separated couple Shane and Liz’s (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) car is sabotaged just before the Purging begins, abandoning them downtown with no place to go.
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The five eventually cross paths and rely on Barnes to keep them safe through the night, making idiotic mistakes along the way. As a cast of characters they’re on the less sympathetic side. The divorcing couple is somehow unlikeable despite being the most identifiable, and the mother and daughter, while endearing, often make stupid mistakes atypical to this kind of horror film. Grillo makes for a solid (if blandly invincible) protagonist whose just-interesting-enough backstory leads to the film’s mostly satisfying close.
Not everything leading up to it is equally satisfying, though. The film’s usually awesome ideas (some pre-Purge ceremonies, an anti-Purge organization, among many others) are wobbly when it comes to the social commentary they’re trying to convey (what point are they trying to make, exactly?), but serve well to expand on the universe the first film created. Still, the majority of the movie plays out like a jumble of ideas scribbled down on a sticky note during a brainstorm session, and never fleshed out afterwards. DeMonaco, who also penned the script, may want to pace himself before cranking out the probable third installment.
Maybe the ideas would have worked better if presented in a horror film context, but Anarchy barely qualifies as horror as much as it does faux-action thriller. Possibly the least scary movie Blumhouse (Insidious, The Conjuring) film produced in a long time, the so-called horror sequences unfold with sluggish predictability and monotonous gunfire.
Compared to the first, it’s a step forward in terms of ideas, but a step backward in terms of execution and horror. Moving forward, hopefully the series can find a balance and quickly, or even fans of the first like me will start to rebel.