8 August 2014

Review: The Purge: Anarchy (James DeMonaco, Universal, 2014)


The Purge: Anarchy 
2014, 103mins, 15
Director: James DeMonaco 
Writer: James DeMonaco 
Cast includes: Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, Zoe Soul
UK Release Date: 25th July 2014 

It was only recently, through the miracle of digital media that I caught up with 2013’s “The Purge”. The delay probably had something to do with the venomous critical reaction the film attracted last summer, although the ingenious concept (for one night a year, all crime becomes legal in America) ensured that at some point I would take the plunge. I needn’t have bothered. A rather eerily photographed but vacant thriller, “The Purge” jettisoned its socially conscious premise in favour of bland home invasion jolts, headlined by both Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey in forgettable form. Chief amongst the picture’s numerous sins was its confined setting, denying us the pleasure of seeing a “Purge Night” enacted on the streets, our only sampling coming through stilted CCTV coverage. “The Purge Anarchy” at least corrects this misstep, forcing its cast into the terrorised cityscape, where masked thugs bizarrely opt to hide their identities on the one night such precautions aren't necessary. The heighted scale allows returning film-maker James DeMonaco to deliver a less visually stagnant feature, but unfortunately the drama at the franchise’s core remains unconvincing and its satirical punch depressingly blunt.

“The Purge” opted to follow a wealthy family during the course of the new national tradition, but “Anarchy” encapsulates a wider spectrum of characters. Through equally unpleasant and contrived circumstances a selection of middle and working class lightweights have to band together under the protection of vengeful Sergeant (Frank Grillo), who guides them through the horror of Purge Night on route to his own bloodthirsty deadline. As the unlikely squad brave the danger around them, they form a bond, and uncover that the government might have more to do with Purge warfare than previously believed.

With “The Purge” DeMonaco displayed little concern for nuanced character, instead choosing to utilise as many stock portraits as possible. This isn’t necessarily a fatal misstep within the confines of genre film-making; if there’s something smart or exciting happening around the protagonists that is. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case with “The Purge”, and it’s rarely practiced in the sequel either. DeMonaco makes a much stronger attempt to cake his heroes in sympathetic virtue, using Nathan Whitehead’s instructive score and his own cloying melodramatic subplots to portray a set of blameless victims, but the work lacks detail. The cast are left to toy with cardboard personalities motivated by clichéd problems. We have an impending separation between a young couple, a mother and daughter trying to cope with the loss of a grandfather and Grillo, a usually solid actor, swaggering around with a shallow grimace concerning the loss of his child. This sort of miserly characterisation might be acceptable in a short, but it tires fast in a 103 minute feature. Certainly when peril arises, it becomes hard to care for any of these papier-mâché sorts.

The film begins by telling us the benefits Purge Night, explaining how crime outside the event is almost non-existent and that unemployment has dropped below 5%. DeMonaco has conceived a wonderful central idea, but as with its predecessor, the delivery of effective commentary proves troublesome. The clumsy dramatic set-up ensures the movie favours the victims, the 99% who immolate each other annually whilst the rich hole up in their booby-trapped mansions. It does little else but detail how barbaric the process is, using bursts of generic dystopian violence to communicate fear and abandonment, whilst only occasionally tickling the demented festival’s deeper potential. DeMonaco has a brave eye for haunting frames. He exercised it in the first entry, and probably betters the standard with “Anarchy”. Memorable shots include a stockbroker being strung gorily to a bank by mistreated clients and a wealthy family preparing to disembowel a poor volunteer for their own private amusement. These segments pack a sinister taste, but they’re never woven organically into the DNA of the wider story. Instead “Anarchy” chooses to utilise these choice moments for singular shocks, refusing to allow the dull chase narrative to adopt the same foreboding quality. An attempt to incorporate the government directly into the carnage is welcome, but it’s done with haphazard indifference. In fact the final, substantial chunk of dialogue is spent on explaining the implications of what this might mean, instead of leaving it an intriguing and uneasy mystery. If anything, this evidences a staggering lack of confidence in the material on DeMonaco’s part.

The world is expanded in “Anarchy”, although the modest budget means the action never reaches the manic crescendo promised. The initial bursts of alley bound conflict incur a certain level of dread, but there’s not much dynamism in the numerous shoot-outs, DeMonaco opting for a choppy approach to his set-pieces. At times the editing is borderline incomprehensible, frantic cutting rendering potentially savage altercations undecipherable. It doesn’t help that no single villain stands out, and with Grillo’s macho action man fronting the charge, every threat registers as mild. It’s clear that DeMonaco elected to make soft, societal rejects the subject of this piece to create an air of vulnerability, and to juxtapose the upper-class strife of part one with something rooted in ordinary urban living. The resourcefulness and gruff invincibility evidenced by Grillo’s character only serves to undercut tension, his own personal demons never fleshed out satisfactorily enough to make the sacrifice worthwhile.

The screenplay is riddled with stunted dialogue and regular contrivance. Character’s act out of plot necessity (an inter-familial shoot-out in the movie’s final third is poorly judged) and no car in the city is seemingly operable for more than 30 minutes. These sort of lazy storytelling decisions immediately yank audiences out of DeMonaco’s universe, and turn supposedly frightening sequences into a source of laughter.  Both the original and this sequel uphold a sombre and self-serious tone, rarely backing down to offer anything resembling black or even absurdist humour. Intentionally that is. In execution these films are goofier than they are thrilling, sillier than they are thoughtful. Given the rugged and not unpromising agenda proposed by DeMonaco at the start of each, that surely marks them as failures.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014


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