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Entries in Purge: Anarchy/The [2014] (1)

Friday
Jul182014

The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

Hide and Seek Vengeance

I was a big fan of last year's sleeper hit, The Purge. As with many of producer Jason Blum's low-budget exploitation films, the movie boasted a twist on a horror sub-genre (in this case, home-invasion) that was at once grim, fun, and thought-provoking: in the near future, an extreme right-wing political party called The New Founding Fathers ascends to power and declares an annual night of "cleansing", where just about every crime on the books is legal for twelve hours. The first picture centered on a wealthy family combating a gang of privileged hooligans attacking their fortified home. Thanks largely to its game cast and well-developed snippets of the greater chaos outside, The Purge was good enough to make me wonder what other stories might be told in this insane universe.

The Purge: Anarchy stars Frank Grillo as a man simply referred to as "Sergeant". He's a lean, under-slept, and totally obsessed weapons expert who takes to the streets in his armor-plated death car on a revenge mission. During this night of hell, he'll encounter (and reluctantly save) a struggling mother and daughter (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul, respectively) and a young middle-class couple on the verge of splitting up (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez). Various disasters leave them all stranded in downtown L.A., surrounded by ghoulish gangs, murderous loners, and--for reasons that will become clear later on--faceless government soldiers on a killing spree.

Returning writer/director James DeMonaco blows out the possibilities of his distorted American landscape by ditching one successful formula and infusing others into a surprisingly effective homage to 1980s survive-the-night movies--creating a worthy entry that's a step up in many ways. Part Road Warrior, part Escape from New York, and mostly Streets of Fire (minus, sadly, Fire, Inc. on the soundtrack), the film places the audience square in the sights of maniacs and keeps us jumping into and out of shadowy corners.

These classics' successes relied heavily on a brooding leading man who wants nothing to do with his pack of frightened liabilities, and Grillo steps right into that pantheon of memorable cinematic bad-asses. He brings a layer of vulnerability to Sergeant that makes him more Tom Cody than Snake Plissken (look it up). Better yet, it appears someone forgot to tell him he was acting in a popcorn thriller: in his climactic scene, he draws upon a heartfelt, tearful rage that recalls a height-of-his powers Harvey Keitel, when he could have simply gone the stoic, unengaged Punisher route. Grillo embodies the modern definition of cool here by throwing back to the greats, and he's why you need to see this movie.

Not that there aren't other reasons. DeMonaco continues to tease us with the inner workings of a nation torn apart by anger, in the form of an insurgent gang looking to overthrow the New Founding Fathers. We also get a look at some of the more disgusting lengths people will go to in securing a future beyond Purge night--as well as a taste of how the allegedly dignified super-wealthy spend their twelve hours of terror (some of these ideas were last seen in Hostel III; while I must subtract points for originality, at least people will finally get to see them).

The one thing missing from The Purge: Anarchy is consistent tension. DeMonaco includes a few too many ingredients in his otherwise tasy soup that keep it from being delicious. When our downtrodden heroes are running from flaming dune buggies in the subway or sneaking out of an apartment building that's surrounded by cops, the movie really works. But frequent detours into convenient safe havens give the film a stop-and-start pace that falls just short of conveying true desperation and inevitability.

I can't complain too much, though. This is a much better movie than I'd expected and, frankly, a more mature work than the core audience deserves. Ostensibly, the draw of these films is the cathartic rush of watching everyday people graphically act out their existential frustrations.* But beneath the sensationalism is a human drama that taps into mankind's darkest fears about our resources, our resiliency, and the systems we've put in place to keep things like the Purge from being the norm (I'm not saying we'd tear ourselves apart, if given the chance, but it'd likely be a long, hard road back to civilization).

Perhaps DeMonaco's greatest triumph is providing a smart, watchable alternative to Snowpiercer. That movie is about class and chaos, too, but The Purge: Anarchy benefits from being shorter and more internally consistent with both its logic and overarching ideas. I don't agree with the politics of either film (the "eat the rich" message speaks to a victimization-of-the-poor mentality that I can't get behind), but DeMonaco keeps a tighter lid on his premise and constructs a fully realized world that offers a more digestible commentary than Joon-ho Bong's rickety allegory.

I neither need to see nor want to see the inevitable second sequel. The Purge: Anarchy ends on a more touching and optimistic note than its predecessor (though both films have iffy resolutions reminiscent of Stephen King), and I'm fine believing that the New Founding Fathers will soon get their due. The danger in continuing this as a franchise is that all roads eventually lead to convoluted conspiracies, death traps, and other assorted gimmickry. Though ostensibly a series about nihilism, the Purge films are neither cruel, stupid, nor disposable...yet.

*Coming out of the theatre, I heard some teens and twenty-somethings laughing about who they'd like to "purge" It made me ill.