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‘The Purge: Anarchy’ is too earnest to be any fun

Frank Grillo in "The Purge: Anarchy"
Frank Grillo in "The Purge: Anarchy"
Universal Pictures

The Purge: Anarchy (movie)

Rating:
Star2
Star
Star
Star
Star

The Purge” was a surprisingly successful horror movie last summer. Despite only a critical rating of 38% over at RottenTomatoes.com, the story of a middle class family defending their home against sinister marauders pulled in a whopping $34 million its opening June weekend. And these days in Hollywood, that means instant franchise. Thus, a sequel was rushed into production and this sequel entitled “The Purge: Anarchy” is it.

This new movie both improves upon and falls short of its predecessor. It is well made and well acted, and it wisely opens up the story to show what goes on amidst the chaos in a big city. But this one stridently preaches against the very violence the film exalts in. It has endless shots of bodies being crushed, beaten, sliced and blown apart by bullets. And yet, the script constantly preaches against the very premise that drives this B horror movie. How can we have fun when we’re being guilted into even watching the darn thing?

“The Purge: Anarchy” almost demands to be a black comedy with its futuristic portrayal of an America where violence has been outlawed except for one 12-hour ‘Purge’ during which the population is encouraged to go out and release their inner killer. It’s an absurd premise that could even make for a great satire, but this film seems determined to be as earnest as “The Fault in Our Stars”. There's not much fun in trashy horror striving to be that sober.

And in wanting to eat their cake (a bloody horror film) and have it too (critiquing bloodlust), the filmmakers expose their flimsy premise to dozens of questions that make the whole shebang seem even thinner. For example, what does all this death and destruction cost our economy? What does the rest of the world think of the USA’s self-indulgent temper tantrum? And does insurance cover all this mayhem, and if so, does J. K. Simmons tell us Farmer’s can help us learn to wield a machete?

This could be absurdist fun in the hands of someone like Robert Rodriguez or John Carpenter. Those filmmakers know how to create pulp with their tongues planted firmly in cheek. But writer/director James DeMonaco seems hell-bent on playing all of this completely straight. The result is a depressing slog with little wit or real imagination in tone or execution. Pun intended.

Instead, DeMonaco spends an awful lot of screen time having his characters bitch about the Purge with overly serious dialogue about how it’s destroying American society and was set up to eradicate the poorer classes. At times, such pontificating borders on turning into the debate scenes from the 2012 movie “Lincoln” (http://bit.ly/1n5G8HL), and that’s not what horror movie fans are looking for. Heck, one can find more humor in an average newsstand copy of The Nation than in the pretentious rabble here.

What horror fans want are some clever thrills and chills. But this film fails to create genuine suspense, and makes too much of the killing utterly tedious. In fact, most of this movie remains predictable, right up until the very end. Its last 10 minutes hold some nice twists, but before then “The Purge: Anarchy” trots out a lot of horror clichés. Innocent victims escape death but don’t retrieve any weapons scattered on the ground that they would need to defend them further. Certain villains appear to be offed, but of course they aren’t, so they can return like an unvanquished Jason Voorhees. And just as certain characters solve their personal problems, one of them will bite the dust to serve up the genre's tried and true versions of irony. It's all stuff we've seen too many times before.

Even the three disparate stories that drive the film are brought together in a way that’s too heavy on coincidence and not particularly clever. The five main characters all run into one another at the exact same time, from the entire breadth of the urban sprawl, and escape in the lead’s car. It saves a lot of screen time, true, but it’s another part of the movie that disappoints for not being more imaginative.

Still, the actors in that crew perform their roles admirably. The terrific Frank Grillo (http://imdb.to/UiRqxg) plays a character that decides to take advantage of the yearly Purge and avenge his son’s death during the last one. But soon enough, he’s acting the hero as he saves those innocents who end up in his ride. They’re a divorcing couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) on the run from a gang who sabotaged their car; and a mother/ daughter duo (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul), forced out of their home by jack-booted thugs.

They’re all worth rooting for as the film becomes an extended chase scene with the five staying inches ahead of their pursuing “Purgers”. Eventually, the good guys fall into the hands of some ‘one-percenters’ that bid on the hapless they want to execute at an exclusive auction. This is the one place where some genuine black comedy seeps into the picture, but it’s a bit too derivative of the sex slavery auction scene in “Taken”.

In fact, this sequel borrows liberally from other films with similar escape themes like “Escape from New York” and “The Terminator” too. That’s fine, steal from the best as they say, but this film isn’t one iota as fun as any of those classics. If only Snake Plissken had shown up from Carpenter’s 1981 thriller (http://imdb.to/UiRlcM). He could’ve taught them how to crack wise during such adventures.

There are some decent twists at the end, and the demise of some of the marauders make for some cheer worthy moments. But if you’re going to lampoon the nation’s love of violence, guns and vengeful cowboy thinking, shouldn’t there be some more slyness to it all; a more stinging POV that is entertaining as well? This film desperately needs some witty bark to add to its bite.

If there is a sequel, and there surely will be, as this movie’s poised to come in tops at the box office this weekend with close to a $30 million take, let’s hope that the next one is called “The Purge: Aftermath”. I want to see how the new “founding fathers of America” as they are called in this franchise, handle the fall-out after the Purge has ended. The pending months of clean up, lawsuits, and political fallout would make for one ripe political black comedy. And that would be more entertaining than the downer this franchise is.