With The Purge: Anarchy, writer-director James DeMonaco gamely makes amends for The Purge’s cynical failure of imagination, both its refusal to seriously grapple with its legitimately striking premise and make sense of how it cynically bound allegory to its sense of gore. Stepping up to the streets, and indulging a shift in political perspective, the sequel’s plot follows five individuals thrown together on the one night of the year where the New Founders of America allow the country’s populace to go on a 12-hour killing spree without fear of retribution. As the group slinks throughout downtown Los Angeles while trying to avoid the gangs of roving anarchists who thrill at the chance of “releasing the beast,” their encounters with adversaries and allies alike reveal DeMonaco’s sincere interest in exploring the contours of a national nightmare that no one underclassman takes stock of in quite the same way, as well as his understanding of the rage that fuels so much of America’s present-day class warfare.
DeMonaco is a cartoon satirist with no sympathy for the rich, who in their abject bloodlust throughout come to resemble expats from the grotesque horror zone of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” music video. These ghouls, so white and blond, and with surnames like Hearst, aren’t as realistic a demography as the story’s down-and-out heroes: Sergeant (Frank Grillo), a shadowy lone wolf driven by a thirst for retribution; a splitsville-bound white couple, Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez), who hide out for safety in the backseat of his car; and Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and Cali (Zoë Soul), an African-American mother and daughter he rescues after they’re pulled from their apartment building by a group of government-aligned soldiers. Shane and Liz may ultimately be nothing more than dead weight, but DeMonaco reserves intriguing shades of gray for his other characters that sometimes defy expectation. When one group of anarchists finally catches up with Sergeant and his tagalongs, a thug pulls back his ominous mask to reveal not just his face, but his complicity in supplying the rich with their human targets.
That scene is a salient, realistic expression of how the poor, out of fear and exasperation, enable the upper classes to enjoy the lifestyles they do, though The Purge: Anarchy also understands that the underprivileged need not bow down to such a system, as in the scene of a stock broker’s bloodied corpse being dangled outside a corporate tower from which he wrecked countless lives. DeMonaco may at times overcompensate for the The Purge’s flaws by doubly, sometimes triply, underlining the story’s governing theme of social power and how it’s exchanged, but the rage and lucidity of these ideas resonate in ways that the filmmaker’s workmanlike images, excepting the chilling vision of a burning bus silently darting across the frame in the background of one shot, do not. And while the second half of the film may ham-fistedly proceed as a quasi-dissertation on capital punishment, the final refutation of a certain power that be’s belief that America doesn’t save lives subversively speaks to contemporary affairs, and in a way practically unseen in mainstream cinema since the heyday of John Carpenter.