Film review: The Purge sequel is dragged down by lackluster anarchy

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The hunt-or-be-hunted thrill continues with The Purge: Anarchy, where anything is legal for 12 hours on one day per year. Photo credit: Blumhouse Productions The hunt-or-be-hunted thrill continues with The Purge: Anarchy, where anything is legal for 12 hours on one day per year. Photo credit: Blumhouse Productions

Anyone who has been to an underground or independent film festival is no doubt familiar with a very specific genre of DIY “woods” movies where dudes with guns creep through a forest, talk an awful lot for people trying to remain undetected, and get into strangely choreographed shoot-outs at odd intervals. These movies are made this way out of necessity, due to a lack of resources and funds; the work ethic is commendable, but they are notoriously hit-or-miss in quality. The only thing that separates The Purge: Anarchy from these movies is a budget for location permits (and Michael K. Williams).

If you weren’t expecting a sequel to last year’s critically reviled but financially successful The Purge so quickly, you’re not alone. Apparently, neither was writer-director of both films James DeMonaco, who delivers a story that is equal parts half-finished (sometimes inspired) ideas and tedious filler (and Michael K. Williams).

One year after the events of the first film, we are introduced to a new cast of characters for whom the annual purge has become shockingly routine. Five people—a mother and daughter, a couple on the verge of a breakup, and a mysteriously skillful survivalist with a mission—find themselves stuck in the open together and must cooperate in order to find safe haven for the night. Along the way, we get glimpses of how class and race factor into the purge. The wealthy pay to do it safely while the poor do whatever it takes to survive, whether it’s hunker down or go on the offensive. Meanwhile, a Black Panther-style revolutionary has been telling the truth online and hints at a brewing rebellion. 

Sounds like a hell of a ride, right? It definitely could have been. Before you see it based on this description, please understand that this is only the first 20 minutes, which are full of promise and effective tension (and Michael K. Williams). The rest of the long-feeling 103 minutes is filled with too-distant atmosphere and a series of embarrassingly predictable, tonally inconsistent setups. If someone is walking slowly and the music goes quiet, you’ll learn to count the beats before something attempts to startle you. All of the gunshots and screaming in the background are just that: background. Every time the action cuts away to someone not in the central cast getting shot or abducted, it feels like another story that’s more interesting than the one we’re following. Escalation to absurdly gratuitous heights would have suited this story perfectly, but it’s nowhere to be found.

The saving grace of The Purge: Anarchy may be three or four moments of effective campiness (and Michael K. Williams). As you watch this movie, you will laugh. As you leave, you will wonder whether you were meant to. As a devotee of 1980s Schwarzenegger flicks who still cherishes his VHS copy of Demolition Man, I’m totally on board with seemingly stupid action flicks that surprise you with their level of self-awareness. The scenes near the end that echo these films work and may be worth the price of admission for some, but The Purge: Anarchy doesn’t set the stage enough for them to pay off.

If you’re confused or frustrated by the teasing use of Michael K. Williams’ name in this review, get ready to feel the same way about his presence in the movie. Playing the leader of the freaking badass black anti-purge militia, his scenes are far and away the best, but total about six minutes and happen at least an hour apart. This is just one of many ideas casually tossed into The Purge: Anarchy that deserve their own movies, not to be offhandedly referenced in a movie about five uninteresting people whose only collective talent is being exceptionally bad at sneaking.

~Kristofer Jensen

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