Film Review: THE PURGE: ANARCHY
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THE PURGE: ANARCHY
Starring Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, Zoe Soul, Justina Machado, Michael K. Williams, John Beasley
Directed and written by James DeMonaco
Produced by Jason Blum, Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Sebastien K. Lemercier
Director of Photography, Jacques Jouffret
Production Design by Brad Ricker
Edited by Todd E. Miller and Vince Fiippone
“The Purge: Anarchy,” the audience-anticipated sequel to 2013’s surprise sleeper hit “The Purge,” is one of those frustrating films that can drive viewers as batty and confused and psycho as many of the antagonists and characters in the new film, which is scheduled to open on Friday, July 18, 2014, to assuredly strong box office results. The film is well-made overall, has some quite strong acting performances, is confidently and boldly well-directed and well-written, and the production design, cinematography, stunt work, action sequences and musical score are all memorable, strong and assured. There are even some well-thought-out explorations of some very real, very serious political, social, cultural, race, class and societal issues, most noticeably race and class oppression, the problems with severe economic divisions and gun violence—and latent psychosis and mental instability—at all levels of society.
And the one-line-suggestion/outline, elevator-pitch-simple premise of “Anarchy,” as it was in the first film, is luridly, lewdly, bizarrely and horrifyingly fascinating and strangely alluring, story-wise: What if, for one night every year, for twelve hours, all crime was legal—including murder—and you could do anything you wanted to do, and you would not be arrested for it?
However, despite being well-made, despite exploring serious societal and political matters, and despite coming up with a completely different set of characters and storylines from the first film to work off of the spooky premise (a good thing), and despite being gripping and suspenseful and scary—despite all of the positives—“The Purge: Anarchy” in the end remains somewhat strangely unsatisfying and disappointing. “Anarchy” ends up being one of those film conundrums: a well-made pulp popcorn B-movie that strives so hard to rise above the movie muck, but, alas, doesn’t quite get there.
One of the main problems is the inherent main aspect of the general premise: violence. The premise of “Anarchy” can hardly be explored without violence occurring, of course, but it is the manner and nature of the violence, and how it is portrayed, in “Anarchy” that ultimately brings down the film and prevents the movie from reaching that higher level. The filmmakers—director and writer James DeMonaco and producers Jason Blum, Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Sebastien K. Lemercier—the same crew from “The Purge”—have stated that they were interested in exploring violence, gun violence and other race and class differences in “Anarchy,” and they are all to be applauded not only for that goal but for actually achieving that goal in the film. However, they upend and distort and bring down their own intellectual goals by constantly presenting unpleasant, jarring, grotesque and not-enjoyably-unsettling, stomach-turning scenes of brutal violence, to the point where their message somehow gets lost amid the bloodshed.
Some will argue that to make a point about violence in film, filmmakers need to show violence in film. And there is an area of thought—held my many film critics, observers, historians, analysts and viewers, including this writer—in which many strongly disagree with that notion, even in terms of discussions about such bloody, violent films as “The Wild Bunch,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Taxi Driver,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill,” “The Exorcist,” and hundreds of others. As with the better horror films, and as with the better suspense films, often the best horror and the best suspense come not from throwing the horror and suspense into your face, but by very subtle, under-handed, eloquent sequences that do not have to involve blood, guts, gore, gut-wrenching violence, explicitness and graphic violence. And the same approach can apply to horror/suspense/slightly sci-fi/suspense urban thrillers such as “The Purge: Anarchy.” Statements about violence and race and class differences in society can well be made, and successfully made, without showing nasty, unpleasant violence every two minutes or so—it is simply, easily, clearly not necessary. The trick is to imply that violence has occurred, show the resulting consequences of that violence, explore what that violence means to society and to people, incorporate that violence into the story and characters and characterizations and the story development, story arcs, character developments and character arcs—but not necessarily be so direct, so obvious, so bloody that you turn the audience away to the point where they won’t even want to discuss the deeper intellectual themes.
That insistence on showcasing explicit violence has brought down scores of films that have sought to explore the very theme of violence, including some that are considered “classics,” although, in the end, they are not really classics. The better films throughout film history are able to explore and analyze and intellectualize about violence without using up cases of fake blood, prosthetics, squibs and prop knives and guns. This is not some condemnation of film violence—not in the least, not at all—but rather a simple notation that filmmakers can indeed explore deeper issues centered around violence without showing graphic violence. It’s that simple. Yet, for many filmmakers—including the filmmakers of “The Purge: Anarchy”– it appears that it’s not so simple.
“Anarchy” just can’t turn away from frequent lurid, disgusting and unpleasant violent scenes that just don’t need to be there. The same characters and same storylines of “Anarchy” could have been more successfully explored—actually, with just a few tweaks, and with about forty fewer stunt men—with less stomach-turning violence, less in-your-face scenes, and a few more script edits that included several more scenes of more probing, in-depth and overall intelligent dialogue. And that’s where a major problem occurs with “Anarchy:” the dialogue. DeMonaco could have used another set of eyes and hands with the script, and another scriptwriter less prone to showcasing violence and more apt to focus on more mature, adult dialogue and discussions about the weighty issues the film attempts to cover.
Actually, to see how a film succeeds on an above-average level in these areas—better script, better explorations of serious issues, better looks at race and class differences, war and violence—the filmmakers need only to have been allowed to visit the set of the much better, far superior and far less bloody—to its credit—“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” itself a sequel and which opened just one week before “Anarchy’s” opening, on July 11, 2014! “Apes” accomplishes everything more intelligently and at a higher level than “Anarchy”—without grossing out the audience—and thus, is a far superior film. “Apes” is far easier, far more enjoyable and far more pleasant a film to watch than “Anarchy.”
“Anarchy” has a completely different set of characters and a different setting than the first film, to its credit. A well-constructed prelude and exposition portion, which is basically act one, sets the basic back stories for a group of characters that, through various reasons, end up getting caught outside during the Purge. The film follows these characters as they race to survive, struggle with the very existence of the Purge, try to escape predators who are following and tracking them, and fight to escape a series of horrifying, suspenseful segments as they try to get through the difficult twelve hours of the Purge. They are racing about on the streets of a psycho, madcap, bizarre city turned completely, wholly upside down and inside-out.
Tough guy Sergeant, played heroically, toughly and impressively in a strong lead hero fashion by Frank Grillo, sets out solo in his car into the night of the Purge—when most sane people are safely barricaded behind metal gates, strong doors, locks and other protections—for personal reasons. Through twists of fate and story, Sergeant runs into four others non-Purgers caught outside during the Purge, again, for various reasons: strong-willed, likeable, protective mom Eva (a beautiful, likable and down-to-earth Carmen Ejogo); Eva’s quite impressively independent, candid and no-nonsense, morally-focused daughter Cali (strongly played by Zoe Soul, who ably plays a teenager with teenage thoughts and actions); and an emotionally distraught troubled young married couple, Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez).
The five main characters must deal with all manners of gruesome, graphic, grisly and realistic horror, suspense, violence and terror—none of it supernatural, by the way—as they all deal with, analyze, discuss and argue about the meaning of, need for and possible political, societal and cultural reasons why either the Purge should exist—or should not exist. They all know that the Purge is sanctioned, overseen and regulated by the new government of the United States—freakily called the New Founders of America (note the initials, NFA)—and that all may not actually be what it appears to be. Nevertheless, they have to survive the twelve hours of the Purge.
The new government has sanctioned the Purge for twelve hours a year as some twisted, bizarro means to keep crime low and in check the rest of the year. Of course, that’s ridiculous, but this is a horror/suspense/sci-fi film, and you do have suspend disbelief and go along with the all-out, out-there premise. Once you accept it, it is a fascinating concept.
By placing the five lead characters directly out in the streets in the middle of the Purge, and by presenting all five as likable people you actually care about, the filmmakers have a solid means to create very real horror and suspense. Grillo and Ejogo are especially compelling and strong, and viewers grow to like them—despite certain plot points that raise questions about Sergeant’s actions. Two smaller, cameo performances also stand out—John Beasley as an insanely heroic martyr, Papa Rico, Eve’s father and Cali’s grandfather, whose actions present one of the most original, unique passages in the film; and Michael K. Williams as Carmelo, a powerful, strong-voiced and no-nonsense revolutionary, rebel and reactionary activist who easily recalls bits of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela. Actually, the film needed a strong exploration of Williams’ character, supporters and sub-plot—the increasing rebellion of people against the Purge, the New Founders of America (NFA) and the entire new, Big Brotherish corrupt government. Williams shines in his few scenes, but there is not enough of him, or his character.
Through various machinations and maneuvers, led by Sergeant, the five lead characters fight a ghoulish parade of crazies, killers, psychopaths, marauders, murderers, and, generally, just quite insane criminals, thugs, conspirators and, well, murderers. It is not pleasant at times—again, the explicit violence and the brutality and directness of several scenes brings down the overarching story and storyline. Eventually, Sergeant leads his motley crew through the night, and they expand their city-view and world-view to start questioning, along with the rising, strong Carmelo and his followers, not only the basic sanity and need of the Purge, but the sanity and need of the new government. Of course, that raises questions, stories and plotlines for a third film, and, yes, those possibilities—a rising rebellion of strong-willed reactionary activists rising up against the insanity, brutality and corruption of the failed government, does raise some compelling ideas for a third film in the series.
It should be noted that the basic premise behind “The Purge: Anarchy” and “The Purge” is not new. Filmgoers and fans may think it’s new—but it’s not. In fact, this basic premise—as surely many sci-fi fans recall—was an alarming, unique element of an excellent, classic episode of the original “Star Trek” series, 1967’s “The Return of the Archons.” This episode, smartly written by Boris Sobelman from a story by series founder, creator and producer Gene Roddenberry, included a memorably horrifying aspect of a controlling society, that Kirk and crew interact with on a planet, called Festival. During Festival—you guessed it—the elusive, creepy and corrupt controllers of the society allow violence, crime and destruction to pervade the populace without consequence, and without arrest. Sound familiar? It is familiar—it’s the same concept and premise as the “Purge” films. “The Return of the Archons” first aired 47 years ago—nearly half a century ago—on Feb. 9, 1967.
And the episode did not have to include any gory, gruesome, grotesque sequences of unnecessarily graphic and unsettling violence. The story, characters, message, dialogue and even representation of violence were all handled in a masterly, classic, stylistic manner. And the messages, themes and morals that Roddenberry and Sobelman were presenting in such an intelligent manner came through loud and clear—and those message resonate loudly and clearly—and entertainingly—47 years later.
A better option for exploring the many probing questions raised in the pulpy B-movie “Purge” films (note that one of the producers of the films is the overwrought, tiresome and bombastic Michael Bay) is to seek out, find—and keep—the superb “The Return of the Archons.” And then watch it several times. Viewers will then realize that the themes, stories, premises and questions raised in “The Purge: Anarchy” were done much better, more fully and far more intelligently 47 years ago by Roddenberry and Sobelman.
Some entertainment entities are a deservedly purged flash in the pan of time, and some others, like “The Return of the Archons,” live long and prosper.