“Stay safe” is the phrase friends and family pass around on the eve of the annual Purge. Innocuous enough. But what they really mean is “don’t get decapitated by roving gang members or gunned down by shock troops in riot gear.”
Such is the society concocted by the New Founding Fathers in 2023 America, which has instigated a 12-hour period each year when all crime is legal.
Last summer’s “The Purge,” from writer/director James DeMonaco, was limited more by scope than premise. But his follow-up, “The Purge: Anarchy,” expands the setting and the social commentary, resulting in a fierce thriller that roars with contemporary relevance.
The official government holiday allows the one-percenters to get rid of those too poor to defend themselves. But it also grants everyone the opportunity to perpetrate violent revenge fantasies.
As the evening commences, news anchors in the city again wish everyone to stay safe … and “for those releasing the beast, a successful cleanse.”
Three sets of characters are introduced during the sixth annual Purge. The first is the unnamed hero (buff Frank Grillo of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”), a man with considerable military training who plans to avenge the death of his son. Keeping to themselves are a waitress (Carmen Ejogo) and her teenage daughter (Zoe Soul), who hope to ride out the evening behind the locked doors of their crummy apartment. Meanwhile, a feuding young couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) become unwitting targets when their car breaks down in the heart of the city.
It doesn’t take long before the soldier gets sidetracked into rescuing these unarmed civilians, leading to a long, hellish night as the five simply try to survive.
“The Purge” earned more than $90 million globally on a meager $3 million budget, all but guaranteeing a sequel. What it didn’t guarantee was such an interesting sequel.
The original eventually devolved into a home-invasion showdown — a comfortable fit for DeMonaco, who also penned the 2005 “Assault on Precinct 13” remake. By moving the action outdoors, he brings in the full horror of the scenario, from the whacked-out loners finally given an excuse to try out their sniper rifles to the country club elite who auction off captured indigents for members to hunt. (Class warfare hasn’t been portrayed so caustically since the low-budget horror flick “Society,” which revealed the rich to be a different species who literally feed on the poor.)
DeMonaco wisely aims for realism in this sci-fi setup. Instead of depicting the city as a gaudy free-for-all riot, he envisions it as deserted, with only nomadic pockets of chaos. The cutesy affectations of the preppy masked invaders that undercut the first movie have been ditched for more pragmatically intimidating villains, such as a machete-wielding punk who wears a stark white mask with the word “God” written on the forehead.
Yes, the film is lacking star power (no Ethan Hawke this time), yet Grillo and Ejogo are effective in their roles and really give the audience individuals worthy of empathy. Some of the supporting players prove less so, especially Gilford and Sanchez’s couple, whose relationship struggles remain ill-defined. The cast’s biggest name is Michael K. Williams of “The Wire,” as a revolutionary whose broadcasts rail against a state culture that “worships at the altar of Smith and Wesson.”
The poster for the film uses the tagline “An American Tradition.” As long as DeMonaco’s sure hand guides this provocative franchise, the concept is strong enough to support more sequels that live up to that promise.
‘THE PURGE: ANARCHY’
Rated R | Time: 1:43