There is a much better movie inside the low-lying expanse of “The Purge: Anarchy” screaming to be let out – a wickedly satiric movie, for instance, that has some devastating commentary on the emptiness of American electronic media along with some sharp arrows into the heart of an America which has seemed to allow its super-rich 1-percenters to get away with just about everything.
True movie lovers learned many decades ago that you can’t be snobbish about horror movies. The number of brilliant ideas, visual and otherwise, that get worked out under the apparently modest aegis of scaring the bejabbers out of the audience has always been large.
In the case of James DeMonaco’s “The Purge” and now its sequel, that is a rather brilliant premise in the dystopia that has become a favorite movie location for a democratic society furious with itself for what it has allowed to happen.
The movie’s premise is this: in order to combat a horrific rise in violent crime, the American government has set aside 12 hours a year in which all crime, including murder, is legal. No weapons over “stage four” weapons can used (i.e. grenades, explosives etc.), but everything else is kosher – guns, knives, machetes, pistols, flame-throwers, whatever you’ve got.
The general idea of those in charge is to “thin out the herd” in the misanthropic old saying – to maintain population control through blades, bullets and flames. (See the recent “Snowpiercer,” not to mention “The Hunger Games” movies.) But as an anti-“Purge” activist sensibly points out, it’s always the defenseless poor who wind up, by and large, murdered in the greatest numbers.
Theoretically all scores can be settled by anyone against anyone any way possible. Death, then, might await those who have harmed others in any way. But then it might await anyone for any reason whatsoever. Rape, thievery etc., it’s all legal.
For the low-budget horror of “The Purge: Anarchy,” it mostly seems, at the film’s beginning, as if it’s going to be an endlessly sadistic scare-number where marauders in face paint, Halloween masks and butcher’s aprons drive about city streets wielding machetes and automatic weapons to murder as many people on camera as possible.
That, to be sure, would be a very low and scurrilous way to use a plot premise as promising satirically as this one.
But writer/director James DeMonaco – who invented these “Purge” nightmares – is far from insensitive to the possibilities of his own fantasies.
We spend his movie following a ragtag bunch of wanderers who have accidentally come together during the 12-hour “Purge.” While the rest of society has spent the final hours leading up to the Purge telling each other to “stay safe” and stay hidden indoors, they’ve dawdled or been lax in security and wound up wandering nightmare streets at night.
Leading them is a proficient soldier/killer (Frank Grillo) who has become their protector against his better judgment. (In this world, of course, “better judgment” means its opposite.)
You’ve got to love a movie that shows you relentlessly cheery TV news types who tell viewers they wish “to those releasing the beast, a successful cleanse.” A better movie would have had at least 15 minutes more of that, fully developed.
The trouble with DeMonaco’s premise is not only that horror movie practicalities keep defeating the movie’s higher motives but, in every way at the end (including ironically), the values of “The Purge” have come out on top, even when it seems as if they haven’t.
And that includes the most cinematic way of all, i.e. the need for a bullet-riddling, body-slaughtering sequel in a very successful horror movie franchise.
The purge: Anarchy
Starring: Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Jack Conley
Director: James DeMonaco
Running time: 103 minutes
Rating: R for language and much bullet-riddling violence.
The Lowdown: In 2023, a ragtag bunch of fugitives tries to survive on city streets during the 12 hours a year the government has made all crime legal, including murder.