Like the 2013 sleeper hit “The Purge,” its inevitable sequel mixes social commentary with relentless assaults on the senses.
Give credit to writer-director James DeMonaco for at least attempting to give his action thriller some heft with a plot that concerns our obsession with violence, ham-fisted as it is. But “The Purge: Anarchy” is still just an excuse to bombard us with high-powered weaponry, armored vehicles, vigilantes, and masked marauders in creepy Joker-like makeup.
The sequel is set in 2023. For six years, the “New Founding Fathers” have sanctioned an annual 12-hour period during which all criminal activity, including murder, is legal. “Stay safe!” is the constant refrain as ordinary, law-abiding folks head home to hunker down while those with scores to settle, or just with a taste for blood, grab their guns and take to the streets. It seems that extending happy-hunting seasons to humans has caused unemployment and crime to plummet during the rest of the year, resulting in an “America reborn.”
(You don’t have to be a sociologist to question the common sense of that plot premise. The story assumes that the “have nots,” who sustain the most casualties in this annual hunt, would otherwise commit most of the crimes, and that they are the “takers” who drain resources from the rich. That should be your first reminder that this is a schlocky horror thriller, not “Grand Illusion” or even Walter Hill’s 1979 film “The Warriors,” which tackled similar terrain with more style.)
The Ethan Hawke-led nuclear family of “The Purge” has been replaced by a quintet that’s thrown together in the streets on purge night. A young white couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) and a Latina mother and daughter (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul) race, terrified, through an unnamed metropolis. All are rescued, reluctantly, by a Lone Ranger (Frank Grillo, looking like a young John Cassavetes) on a mission of his own. As they flee heavily armed mystery men, they eventually wind up — in the movie’s campiest scene — at a swanky purge party for the 1 percenters, presided over by a dowager who auctions off the right to slay for sport. Overstating the obvious, there’s also a Black Panther-like leader (Michael K. Williams) who preaches revolution against the New Founding Fathers. Purging, he claims, isn’t about “cleansing” or reducing crime; it’s about money and the exploitation of the poor and minorities. Indeed, the chickens have come home to roost.
But the film wants to have it both ways: It mixes sanctimonious commentary about violence and socioeconomic claptrap with grand depictions of violent assaults and terror on cue. Will its makers be responsible if someone goes on a rampage while wearing a “Purge” mask and spouting nonsense about soul cleansing and America reborn? No. But it’s hard to see movies like this as just cinematic junk food anymore.