Friday, July 18, 2014

Review: The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." That sounds like the philosophy of James DeMonaco, the writer and director of The Purge, last year's terrible but financially successful horror film with a dystopian twist, and it seems to have paid off. Despite a beefed-up budget (most of the first film's problems stemmed from not having the money to capitalize on its ideas) and promising-looking trailers, I was fully prepared to walk out of this film feeling like a fool for having been tricked twice by the same movie, remembering how intriguing the ads for the first film looked as well and how that movie wasn't half as good as its trailers made it look. Fortunately for me, while this film has its own share of issues that keep it from greatness, it blows the original out of the water, for the most part fulfilling the promise of its premise while delivering a solid action/horror film that kept me on the edge of my seat most of the way through.

While it's being marketed as a horror film like the original, in spirit The Purge: Anarchy has a lot more in common with the dystopian, satirical action flicks of the '80s, like The Running Man, Escape from New York, and RoboCop. We get a much closer look at the titular Purge and how it operates, closing some of the plot holes of the first film (explosives aren't allowed, banks move their cash to secure locations beforehand), fleshing out the world and how it reacts to the event, and painting a more malicious portrait of the New Founding Fathers, the authoritarian rulers of the United States. While it was implied in the first film that the Purge was less about allowing people to "release the beast" and more about killing the poor, here that theme is put front and center, complete with a resistance group fighting back against the Purge led by a radical figure named Carmelo. When it came to world-building, I was hooked, my only problem being that there often wasn't enough of it, the plot not doing enough to capitalize on the themes running through the film. It was only in the third act where the film really took off, between the "auction" and the reaction of one character to another's death, and before then the attempts at social commentary only worked occasionally.

Much of this has to do with the characters, who are, collectively, the film's greatest failing. While the original was about a single family surviving the Purge, here we get three separate stories: there's Leo, a police sergeant who seeks to use the Purge to get revenge on the man who drunkenly ran over and killed his son, Shane and Liz, a young couple who are stranded outside when their car breaks down on the way home (after being tampered with by some thugs targeting them in advance), and Eva and Cali, a mother and daughter who are forced out onto the streets after their apartment is raided early into the Purge. The five of them meet and band together for survival against the roving gangs and psychos running around Los Angeles. The first problem with these characters is that none of the actors give very good performances. Frank Grillo as Leo and Zoe Soul as Cali were probably the best (or at least, the most tolerable) out of the five, though that's damning them with faint praise, especially with the rest of the main cast coming off as dull and uninterested. They were often in situations where they were supposed to be scared, and they were spouting dialogue to that effect, yet to see and hear it in their performances one would guess that they were at Halloween Horror Nights rather than being seriously chased by murderous psychopaths. There's nobody here who's as good as Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey were in the first film, perhaps the only area where the original has an edge on the sequel.

Furthermore, after they're introduced, Leo is the only character who gets anything in the way of serious development without dropping right out of the movie immediately afterwards. Replacing either the young couple or the mother and daughter with two "cannon fodder" characters could have alleviated this problem, allowing the film more time to develop the other duo as anything more than ciphers that I couldn't bring myself to care about, while also allowing the film to raise the stakes by killing off important characters in the first hour. While we see a lot of random people getting killed over the course of the movie, the first death of a main character didn't come until the third act; until then, I was wondering when the film was finally going to have the courage to kill off one of the heroes and drive their peril home.

The fact that the film didn't really grow its teeth until the third act was strange, as had it done so sooner, it could have made a pretty thrilling movie that much more intense. This film's smartest move by far was to break out of the original's close confines, taking advantage of a bigger budget to bring the action out into the streets of Los Angeles and show the full extent of the Purge. Gangs of psychopaths roam the streets, chasing down prey on dirt bikes and flamethrower-equipped ATVs, while snipers camp the rooftops and pick them off. A well-equipped paramilitary outfit breaks into apartments and kidnaps people. A crazy woman stands on a bridge spouting rants through a megaphone in one hand and firing a machine gun at any passersby with the other. Seeing the Purge as well-realized as it was here, I couldn't help but think of what an awesome survival horror video game it could make, especially with DeMonaco's massively improved sense of staging and tension over the first film. While shaky-cam has become one of my pet peeves when it comes to action movies, horror movies are a different story altogether; here, for instance, it produced a sense of panic that made me afraid of what could be around the next corner. Even though the characters kept inexplicably surviving everything thrown at them (up to a point), when I was actually watching the film it always felt like any of them could bite it at any moment.

Score: 3 out of 5

Its attempts to develop its setting were hit-or-miss, and its characters were poorly-acted and thinly-written, but it worked on the level that I wanted it to -- as an intense survival action/horror flick. Even if you were burned by the first film like I was, give this one a try.

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