Last year one of the greatest home invasion movies of recent times dropped at the cinemas, only to be greeted with unjust indifference from the general public. It was called You’re Next. Unfortunately, a lot of that film’s ideal audience were in the next screen over watching The Purge, a vastly inferior horror flick which became one of the year’s runaway success stories. With a budget of approximately £3 million it raked in a return of over £64 million in the US alone. Hello instant franchise.
You’re Next‘s comparative failure can be (and should be) lamented elsewhere, but there are reasons for The Purge‘s success. 1) In Ethan Hawke it at least had star recognition on its side, 2) it was the far more aggressively marketed of the two films, and 3) it had a barking mad premise, daft enough to draw in the curious.
For, you see, in writer/director James DeMonaco’s near-future horror series, many of American society’s ills have been cured by a piece of government legislation allowing murder to be legalised… for 12 hours a year; the annual purge. It’s a ridiculous notion, but one with enough possibilities within it for a barmy feature or two. Hell, it wouldn’t have been out of place in an 80’s John Carpenter flick. Trouble is, first time around, DeMonaco squandered all of these possibilities by straight-jacketing this premise to a formulaic home invasion scenario.
Thanks to that movie’s unusual success, however, he’s back to give it another go. The Purge: Anarchy happily steps outside of the suburban home to look at how several square blocks of city might cope with such a chaotic event. This time, it seems, the film might actually serve its central conceit.
The happiest thing to report is that, yes, The Purge: Anarchy is a definite improvement on its predecessor. Widening the scope and ambition of the series was really the only way to go, to the point where a lot of this ground ought to have been covered last time. Because of this change of focus, Anarchy works to a different set of genre rules. It isn’t really a horror film, despite a couple of (feeble) attempts at jump scares. No, Anarchy is more of a survivalist action movie, one open-heartedly hoping to be thought of alongside such classics as Walter Hill’s The Warriors or the aforementioned John Carpenter’s Escape From New York.
The bad news for DeMonaco is that it ain’t gonna be remembered at all. Anarchy is utterly disposable and quickly forgettable, from its anonymous, generic characters to its pick’n’mix of scenarios that seem strung together in order to pass muster under the mandate that something like this ought to be 90-something minutes long.
This time around we are introduced to disparate characters suffering varying misfortunes in the hours leading up to the annual purge, only to watch them assemble and attempt to survive the night together. Principally, the lead here is a square-jawed fellow named Sergeant (Frank Grillo), a reluctant hero trawling the streets for his own (ultimately uninspired) reasons. Sergeant seems like a character better suited to William Fichtner. Maybe they couldn’t get him. Instead Grillo at least makes him partway charismatic, clearly digging deep to channel Michael Biehn in Corporal Hicks mode.
Orbiting him are dull-as-ditch-water couple Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez), while a bulk of the audience’s empathy vote goes to Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and Cali (Zoe Soul), who buy Sergeant’s protection with the promise of a car. Because, you see, as well equipped as our Sergeant appears to be for the night, it seems he’s very picky about his cars, and couldn’t possibly hijack any of the number of vehicles presumably left abandoned around the city…
Anyhow, this is what Anarchy is offering us; a handful of people playing dodge through some nighttime city blocks, fleeing through tunnels, spying on Slipknot rejects, and generally having a miserable time of it.
If my tone here suggests disappointment and weariness, then the entire story isn’t coming across. Sure there’s a heavy level of cynicism here, and the film very much goes through the motions, but for the most part it’s never really bad. Based on the premise it’s more-or-less exactly what you’d expect, at one stage even diverting into a story alcove that recalls Hostel spliced with… Predator 2. A rare enough combination as these things go. Michael K Williams fans may be disappointed to discover that his appearance as anti-Purge activist Carmelo adds up to little more than a cameo, but on the whole Anarchy does a reasonable job of putting this franchise solidly if unremarkably back on course.
Credit to DeMonaco for making his product so malleable. Anarchy is written and directed by him, just as the first movie was, but it feels like a completely different beast. If this franchise really does take off, becoming a yearly event like last decade’s Saw movies, then Anarchy at least underlines the variety of possibilities available to those at the helm of future instalments. Like the V/H/S films, there is a sense of promise, as long as a sure footing can be found.
The trouble is that this footing still isn’t quite there yet. The Purge hasn’t found its defining moment, never-mind its defining film. Most franchises build from a remarkable (often ultimately unrepeatable) backbone. The Purge exists in a strange mezzanine place where it’s defining element so far has been a surprisingly large box office haul. Quite what to do with such an opportunity still seems, for the moment, elusive. For now though, Anarchy at least suggests that the creators are grasping in the right direction.