Monday, July 21, 2014

In Theaters: THE PURGE: ANARCHY (2014)

(US/France - 2014)

Written and directed by James DeMonaco. Cast: Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, Zoe Soul, Michael K. Williams, Justina Machado, John Beasley, Jack Conley, Noel G, Edwin Hodge, Keith Stanfield. (R, 104 mins)

Last summer, the $3 million THE PURGE grossed $64 million to become one of season's surprise sleeper hits, despite no one really liking it that much. And yet, exactly one year later, here's THE PURGE: ANARCHY. When any film rakes in 21x its budget, a sequel is going to happen whether you want one or not. A year is a long time, and a lot of people have forgotten that over half of that $64 million came from the opening weekend before the negative word-of-mouth spread, sending the film on a precipitous 76% freefall in its second weekend. THE PURGE had a great concept, one that was ripe for social and political commentary: five years into the future, unemployment and crime are an all-time low, due to the revamped US government, overseen by a group of elected officials known as "The Founding Fathers" having legalized "The Purge," a one-night, 12-hour block of time where all crime, including murder, is legal, thereby allowing everyone to get a year's worth of rage out of their systems and allow society to flourish. It's the kind of dystopian high concept that could've led to an incendiary metaphor for the divisive state of the world today. But writer/director James DeMonaco blew it. After the intriguing set-up, THE PURGE quickly devolved into a rote, run-of-the-mill home invasion thriller, with a well-to-do family led by dad Ethan Hawke and mom Lena Headey under siege by a group of privileged thrill-killers trying to get in their locked-down house after they give shelter to young African-American man.

DeMonaco (who scripted 1998's THE NEGOTIATOR and the 2005 remake of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13) is back for THE PURGE: ANARCHY, and he's more or less admitted that he bungled the first film and is attempting to set things right. For the entire duration of THE PURGE, I kept wondering what an in-his-prime John Carpenter might've done with such an idea. That's a big shift in the direction that DeMonaco takes with the sequel, a sort-of PURGE 2.0, if you will, that jumps ahead to 2023, opening up the action and taking it to the streets as we follow a group of strangers thrown together to survive the night. There's low-income single mom Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and her teenage daughter Cali (Zoe Soul), nearly killed by riot-geared soldiers rounding people up in a high-tech truck; about-to-split married couple Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez), stranded on the highway when their car breaks down on the way home; and a nameless mystery man (Frank Grillo) armed to the teeth on a mission of vengeance in a souped-up, steel-covered Italian-post-nuke-looking hot rod, who ends up rescuing them and reluctantly becoming their protector.

THE PURGE: ANARCHY doesn't really hold up under much scrutiny, but it's a vast improvement over the first film. While putting the heroes in a position to make their way across an urban hellscape may bring to mind everything from THE WARRIORS (1979) to the underrated JUDGMENT NIGHT (1993), DeMonaco keeps things moving at a fast clip and offers some striking imagery like ominous overhead shots or a school bus engulfed in flames speeding by in the background. He also has a lot of interesting if not fully-baked ideas while taking some crowd-pleasing shots at easy targets, like the bloody, mutilated remains of a stockbroker, chained up and hanging outside of a bank in the financial district, sporting a hand-written shame-sign stating that he stole the pensions of middle-class workers ("Maybe he deserved it," Shane muses as they stare up at the body), or a large gathering of Botoxed one-percenters holding an auction where the highest bidders get to go on a canned hunt of some captured underclass in an enclosed recreation area, fist-bumping as they don night-vision glasses to make the hunt easier. There's also Carmelo Jones (Michael K. Williams), leader of an online revolutionary organization determined to overthrow the Founding Fathers and expose their SNOWPIERCER-like plan for society. DeMonaco wears his politics on his sleeve, basically shooting fish in a barrel with the points he makes in ANARCHY (SPOILER ALERT: if you think the Botoxed one-percenters and the dead stockbroker are the victims, then you're probably not part of the target audience), but taken at face value, it's exactly the kind of subversive, cynical little B-movie--think CAGED HEAT or DEATH RACE 2000--that Roger Corman would've shepherded in the 1970s. Some action sequences get a little shaky-cammy and one is murkier than it should be, but the entire project gets a huge boost by a terrific lone-wolf performance from veteran character actor Grillo, playing a man who's lost everything and is using The Purge as a last-ditch way of setting things right. His character arc is predictable, but Grillo is perfect in the role, speaking volumes with a squint or a look of disgust, and it's easy to see why the terrified quartet latches on to him after he tries to extricate himself from them and continue on his mission. It's also nice that DeMonaco doesn't make the others into stock cowards and whiners--Liz turns out to be a crack shot, and Cali is a smart kid with wisdom beyond her years, and the protective father-daughter bond that develops between her and the mystery man is well-played by Soul and Grillo. THE PURGE: ANARCHY isn't a great film and it can be kind of dumb, but it's undeniably entertaining and works on a visceral, red-meat level.

No comments:

Post a Comment