James DeMonaco’s The Purge was a meager home-invasion thriller gussied up with hints of dystopian sci-fi, in which a suburban family tried to fend off intruders in the midst of a government-sanctioned killing spree. Its more substantial sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, retains the original’s premise and politics, but actually puts them to use: Instead of limiting itself to a single location, the movie follows a group of characters as they try to cross an L.A.-like everycity, dodging masked machete-wielders, rich sport-killers, and government death squads along the way. While Anarchy shares the first movie’s tin ear for language (no English-speaking government would call itself a “regime”) and sloppy sense of action, it nonetheless deliver the classic genre thrill of watching archetypal strangers band together in order to get from Point A to Point B.
Anarchy is set in the near future, years after the U.S. has instituted a social policy which decriminalizes murder for 12 hours once a year. Though The Purge struggled to make much of this premise, its sequel finds writer-director DeMonaco bursting with ideas: “Martyrs” who allow themselves to be killed in exchange for a large pay-off to their families; futuristic Black Panthers who take up arms once a year to defend poor neighborhoods from the marauding rich; street gangs boarding decked-out party buses to cruise through town, shooting everyone they see; the super-wealthy rounding up stragglers and then holding charity-auction-style galas where bidders win the chance to track human prey in a private indoor hunting ground. With every new scene, it feels like as though the characters have wandered into a different high-concept exploitation movie.
DeMonaco has a clear affinity for the B flicks of yesteryear, though he never manages to match their sense of style. (An early driving scene, in which every widescreen composition contrasts sharp metal and soft bokeh, comes close.) He’s better with characterization, the best example being the nameless man in black who becomes the group’s leader—played, more or less perfectly, by Frank Grillo, whose weatherbeaten face and croaky voice brings to mind Lance Henriksen in his prime.
There’s a refreshing simplicity to the way Anarchy structures its central group. The other members—waitress Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and her daughter, Cali (Zoë Soul); married couple Liz (Kiele Sanchez) and Shane (Zach Gilford)—are motivated only by survival, which means sticking together. Grillo’s character—the only one participating in the Purge by choice—is motivated, for most of the movie, by a sense of obligation to protect them. (Arguably, the final scenes reveal too much about his character, but you can’t have everything.) This puts the focus, for better or worse, on the group’s journey across the city, a succession of exterior threats that range from inspired—like an argument in a safe house that erupts into violence—to half-baked. The movie’s inconsistency contributes to its throwback feel; classic drive-in B-movies were rarely good all the way through.