When it comes to the horror genre, a hit isn’t a hit unless said hit spawns a lucrative series or franchise (see, e.g., Halloween, Friday the 13th, Saw). With that in mind, Blumhouse Productions (Paranormal Activity) couldn’t help but rush The Purge: Anarchy (a/k/a The Purge: Night of the Juggalos) a sequel to last year’s surprise box-office hit, The Purge, a sci-fi-inflected, home-invasion thriller written and directed by James DeMonaco. Casting well known names with indie and/or cable cred in Ethan Hawke and Lena Headly helped to elevate an otherwise promising, if ultimately rote, thriller – disappointing given a compelling premise (inspired by an episode, “The Return of the Archons,” from Star Trek: The Original Series, no less), but recognizing the errors and missteps of his ways, DeMonaco swapped out sub-genres – from home invasion to survival horror – to significantly improved results.
In The Purge universe (a shaky one, believability wise), an ultra-right wing group calling themselves the “New Founding Fathers” have effectively taken over the U.S. government, instituting the yearly “Purge” or cleansing where all crime, up to and including murder, can be committed with complete immunity from legal sanction within a brief 12-hour period. As always, those with the fewest resources to protect themselves or travel outside of major metropolitan areas or outside the U.S. of A. entirely are the most likely victims of the Purge. While the New Founding Fathers extol political, social, and cultural stability thanks to the Purge and declining crime rates, the Purge functions to cull the poorest and weakest, Social Darwinism at its most brutal and violent. That much hasn’t changed from The Purge to The Purge: Anarchy, with the early scenes counting down to the yearly collective murder spree as night approaches inexorably.
Completely jettisoning The Purge’s central characters for an entirely new cast of characters, The Purge: Anarchy centers on Eva Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo), a waitress living in a high-risk area, her teen daughter, Cali (Zoë Soul), a stranded couple, Liz (Kiele Sanchez) and Shane (Zach Gilford), on the verge of ending their marriage, and an enigmatic Man With No Name (Frank Grillo), a man with an agenda that includes murder (but not indiscriminate purging), and an armor-plated muscle car borrowed from the set of Mad Max/The Road Warrior. DeMonaco gives the Man With No Name (until late in the film, when he’s identified as a sergeant in the armed services or the police department and further identified as “Leo Barnes” in the credits) a standard-issue character arc: From antiheroic loner/survivalist to heroic leader of a ragtag group of survivors. Cali essentially functions as his walking, talking conscience, while her mother represents a potential romantic interest (post-film credits, however). Together, the three suggest a provisional family (a 21st-century, interracial one).
DeMonaco falters early, however, by setting up Liz and Shane as not-smart characters who repeatedly make not-smart decisions, beginning with their lackadaisical, nonchalant attitude toward the Purge. They show little foresight or forethought, marking them as sacrificial victims to audience expectations. DeMonaco, however, has too much affection for his characters, even the not-smart ones. Obviously aware of the potentially implications of The Purge: Anarchy’s premise (race, not just the 1% vs. the 99%), he continually downplays the race angle, cutting away moments before the murder of an African-American man by one-percenters in their mansion or keeping the camera at a distance during the violent street confrontations between and among those participating in the Purge. Balance is everything, DeMonaco seems to imply, keeping the multi- ethnic survivors intact for most of The Purge: Anarchy’s running time to offset or diminish those implications. DeMonaco can’t help but to turn a Black Power-inspired revolutionary, Carmelo (Michael K. Williams), into a potentially key character.
Never one to stray far from familiar genre inspirations, DeMonaco takes a remix approach to The Purge: Anarchy, cobbling narrative bits and pieces from the aforementioned Mad Max/Road Warrior, Escape From N.Y. (and LA), and The Most Dangerous Game, a proto-survival horror film released more than eight decades ago. The Most Dangerous Game’s central premise – armed men hunting each other for sport and recreation – has been borrowed repeatedly for films ranging from John Woo’s American debut, Hard Target, to Ice-T’s Surviving the Game. To DeMonaco’s credit, those influences rarely interfere with an otherwise above-average genre entry. The Purge: Anarchy may be short on originality, but DeMonaco knows how to keep the characters and the story constantly moving forward without sacrificing pacing for info dumps or attempts at heart-wringing pathos. He also keeps the violence as close to exploitation free as a film centered on annual killing sprees can be. For that much and (slightly) more, horror-inclined audiences should be happy, if not content.