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Review: ‘The Purge: Anarchy’ – Still a cool concept, just poorly executed

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“Stay safe.” In the near-future world of The Purge, this solemn send-off has become a common once-a-year saying, just as popular as the more jovial well-wishes Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday. Friends, neighbors, and co-workers pass this adage back-and-forth to one another in the final hours before the annual “Purge” commences at sundown. Most of the time, they even seem to mean it, but not only for others, but for themselves as well – because the stakes could not be higher during the Purge, whether you choose to participate or not.

Out this Friday, The Purge: Anarchy is the second film in what is sure to be an ongoing horror series. Last year’s surprise hit, The Purge, made almost $90 million on a $3 million budget. Released almost exactly a year after the first, if this sequel makes even half that much (which it probably will), you can expect yet another film in the series every year, à la the Saw series. The premise of the films is actually quite an intriguing and promising concept, unfortunately, it has been dumbed down and mishandled in both of its cinematic executions. (Though I did kind of like the first film - Read my review of last year’s The Purge here).

“The Purge” is an annual event instituted by “The New Founding Fathers,” a political group mentioned only in passing in the first film, but slightly more present this time around. Though the government-sanctioned Purge is the same, Anarchy follows a new group of strangers under siege in a completely different environment than the first film. Whereas the first film centers on a family protecting themselves in their own home, Anarchy brings the action out onto the chaotic streets of Los Angeles. Patrolled by semi-automatic-stocked semi-trucks and masked motorbike murderers, there is perhaps no worse place to be during the Purge than the mean midnight streets of a major city, especially L.A.

In our group of clichéd character tropes, we have: the damaged badass out for revenge for his son’s death; the meek, but strong mother and her tough, outspoken daughter; and the young, attractive couple with relationship problems. The film gives everyone a brief, ham-fisted setup before forcing them all together to fight for their lives, armed with nothing but bad dialogue and forced drama.

So who are they fighting against? Well, for the most (and more successful) part, they are faceless miscreants out to exercise their “right to purge” – a band of much more terrifying villains than who they actually turn out to be. And unfortunately, the film’s trailer and commercials unapologetically ruin the big reveal of a Hunger Games meets Most Dangerous Game mash-up near the film’s conclusion.

Though the first film stars Ethan Hawke and Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey, Anarchy is nearly devoid of stars – unless you count somewhat rising action star in Frank Grillo, Michael K. Williams as a horribly clichéd Black Panther-like anti-Purge fighter, or an extremely brief appearance by Keith Stanfield, a promising young actor who was utterly amazing in last year’s indie gem Short Term 12.

The film’s half-formed social and political sub-text (if you can even call it that) is obvious and heavy-handed. It is inherent to the premise, but kind of just stagnantly exists because the filmmaker does little with it – neither advancing the plot with it nor providing thought-provoking commentary. And on a slightly different note, how does this night of free crime not result in a myriad of post-Purge problems when the sun rises, i.e. millions of dollars in property damage and cleanup, emotional chaos, and over-crowded hospitals? It is too prominent a question to be completely ignored.

* ½ out of 5 stars

The Purge: Anarchy opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, July 18 and locally at The Theatres at Canal Place, Chalmette Movies, The Grand 14 at Esplanade, and all three AMC Palace theaters (Elmwood 20, Westbank 16, and Clearview 12).

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