Review | 'The Purge: Anarchy' Distracts, Disturbs and Destroys

Welcome back to Hell on Earth, for one night only. That's right: The Purge is back, and these days, it's all Anarchy, all the time.

Once again written and directed by James DeMonaco, The Purge: Anarchy flees suburbia and hits the dark-and-gritty streets of Los Angeles. A reminder: In this near-future America, unemployment and illicit activities are at an all-time low, with one major exception: "the Purge," an annual 12-hour period during which all criminal activity is legalized — everything from petty theft to mass murder. When the Purge is in effect, nothing is sacred, and no one is safe.

Anarchy takes place in 2023, one year after the Purge that claimed the life of security systems specialist James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) and left his wife and children a terrorized wreck. The Sandin family's mansion-lined neighborhood is a thing of the past, as the new Purge drives full speed ahead for a lower-class horror show, focusing on three new sets of soon-to-be victims.

First, there's Shane and Liz (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez), an estranged married couple who take their sweet time getting home, only to wind up with a broken-down car on the side of the road with 10 minutes before the Purge begins. Next, there's Eva and Cali (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul), a mother-daughter duo cast out on the streets when armed assailants come to take them away to the highest bidder. These four individuals would be helpless and hopeless, if not for Leo (Frank Grillo), a no-nonsense man with a chip on his shoulder and more than a few guns to his name. Unlike the others, Leo is on the streets because he wants to be — because he has a score to settle.

Also unlike the majority of lowlifes and killers reveling in the Purge, Leo actually has a conscience. Against his better judgment, he agrees to guide Shane, Liz, Eva and Cali through the night, as long as they follow his every command, and as long as they can secure him a vehicle with which to finish his mission. It goes about as well as expected.

Comparing the first and second Purge films isn't totally fair. In the original, DeMonaco chose to zero in on one small corner of this world. In the sequel, he opens that world significantly, pouring the chaos out onto the streets, and having his protagonists run like mice from one corner of the kill-trap of a maze to another, and another, and another still. A simple way to describe it is that The Purge is to The Purge: Anarchy as Alien is to Aliens: an expansion of the universe, an escalation in action.

But an awfully flattering comparison. Anarchy is a crazier and fuller experience than the first Purge, but it doesn't engage as much as it could. More often than not, the movie leans toward shocking shlock rather than creating genuine tension. The jump-scares exist, but not out of concern for the characters; throughout the film, it's a foregone conclusion that at least one or more of Leo's group won't survive the night — it's just a matter of when and how. The who doesn't really matter.

Indeed, it feels as if Leo and the rest are just bouncing around from one bad thing to another even worse thing, and that's because that's exactly what's happening — and it's exactly what people who walk into The Purge are expecting. The very concept of "the Purge" and the world that would sanction such a "soul-cleansing" event, even for a single 12-hour period once a year, is worth exploring in greater depth. Anarchy isn't the film to make that happen. It's violent, but without wits. It's tough, but without thought. And yet, that's by design; that's just the way some viewers like it.

As a hollow exercise in shock and awe, Anarchy isn't the worst ride in town. It's helped along by a genuine tough guy performance from genuine tough guy Frank Grillo, who broods and beats down on bad guys like it's what he was put on Earth to do. Maybe it is. Honestly, it's a shame that Grillo already exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Brock "Crossbones" Rumlow; in an alternate timeline, he would have made a killer Punisher.

The rest of the cast is fine at best. Again, it's just a matter of waiting for these characters to get picked off, one by one or en masse, depending on DeMonaco's mood. If there's one non-Grillo standout, it's Michael K. Williams of The Wire and Boardwalk Empire; he plays Carmelo, an underground evangelist against the Purge and the hierarchy that enforces it. He's essentially Omar Little with a bigger army and a bigger soap box — a fun character, but an underutilized one.

There are no Academy Awards in The Purge: Anarchy's future. It's not insightful; it's not subtle. But it never aims for those targets. It's blunt, it's brutal, and it's ugly. As with the first Purge, Anarchy knows exactly what it is, and embraces itself accordingly. This is a movie designed to distract, disturb, and destroy. Mission accomplished.

The Purge: Anarchy opens Friday nationwide.

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