For a long time in the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s, Downtown Los Angeles was a bit of a no man’s land. Luckily the unstoppable progression of gentrification is starting to turn that reputation on its ear. In The Purge: Anarchy – the sequel to last year’s The Purge – writer/director James DeMonaco finds a new purpose for the city center. “Everyone comes Downtown to purge,” says a character early on in the film, and so we, the viewers, join “everyone” for their annual release. And it is quite a time.
Taking place in the year 2023, the film reprises the original’s titular conceit, in which one night a year, all crime (“including murder,” as the public service announcement so helpfully clarifies) is legal. The purge is ostensibly a way to keep everyone in check during the rest of the year, but there are some who argue it is secretly the government’s way to wipe out the poor.
The first film followed a wealthy family’s (headed by Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey) struggle to survive the night in their own home. It was a truly dismal way to unpack the legitimately interesting backstory, so the announcement of a sequel that would take more of a wide view of the event was enticing. The Purge: Anarchy follows a group of people forced to work together to stay alive despite the efforts of nearly everyone around them. Frank Grillo (recognizable from his role as the eighth most important character in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) stars as Leo Barnes, mysterious man who is out during the purge to right a personal wrong. He pauses his quest to save the lives of Eva and Cali Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul, respectively), and ends up picking up two more strays in the form of Shane (Friday Night Lights‘s Zach Gilford) and Liz (Lost‘s Kiele Sanchez), a couple who made the stupid mistake of going grocery shopping on the other side of town in the hours leading up to the night when everyone tries to kill everyone else.
“Stupid” is actually a great way to describe almost everything about The Purge: Anarchy. The characters are all stupid in the choices that they make. The movie’s social commentary is stupid in its obviousness. The use of a studio lot for many of the outdoor scenes is stupid in its offensiveness. What’s even more offensive is that DeMonaco includes a bunch of scenes that were shot on location in Downtown Los Angeles. And they look great (especially a shot of a fiery LA Metro bus, which I appreciate as a former utilizer of public transportation). Those early scenes in Downtown gave me hope that the movie might, have this visceral reality to it, but those hopes were quickly dashed.
Not that the script gave me any reason to think positively. It is positively boring, which you wouldn’t think would be the case when your movie is about government-sanctioned murder. But them’s the brakes, because every time a character (besides Michael K. Williams’s Carmelo) opens their mouth you practically fall asleep. Carmelo is the movie’s secret weapon, but DeMoanco doesn’t even realize it, opting to confine his Malcolm X-ish militant character to maybe 3 minutes of screen time. Williams is the only actor who seems to be having any fun, and upon his introduction I dearly wished we were watching David Simon’s The Purge instead of this garbage.
There is still potential here. The Purge: Anarchy is closest to being a successful movie in those moments where we see how all sorts of people react to the absolute power granted them by the government. These scenes are ultra-violent, but they are also almost an intriguing analysis of society and human nature. Almost. Maybe the next film should be a Twilight Zone-esque anthology hosted by Michael K. Williams. And written and directed by anyone other than DeMonaco. He’s had two chances with the concept and despite all odds, this one is somehow worse.
The Purge: Anarchy isn’t worth your time, unless you’re a horror movie completist. It isn’t even a horror movie, really (though there are a couple of tense moments). Pass on this one. But if you do decide to ignore my advice and go downtown to purge, stay safe. (Write the phrase “stay safe” down about 30 times and you’ve already replicated half of DeMonaco’s screenplay).