'The Purge: Anarchy' Strains Credibility But Churns Out Reliable Grindhouse Thrills

However indifferent you might be to the prospect of turning The Purge into an annual box-office ritual, you’ve got to admit there’s something appealing—if not original—about the idea of a genre-hopping franchise. The Purge: Anarchy mostly ditches the home-invasion horror vibe of last year’s sleeper hit, replacing it with grimy urban warfare reminiscent of movies like The Warriors and Escape From New York. In many ways it’s an improvement over the first installment, but the novelty of the setup is already wearing thin.

Writer/director James DeMonaco was given three times more money for this follow-up, and he uses the extra cash to explore the riotous violence only hinted at in news footage in the first installment. It’s Purge Night once again—an annual event that ostensibly seeks to drive down America’s crime and poverty rates by allowing everyone to unleash their meanest, basest instincts for one 12-hour period. Violent crime—including rape, torture, and murder—is legal, provided you don’t use certain military-grade weapons and you don’t target government officials. As we saw in the first installment, most people choose to barricade themselves inside their homes and wait it out. Anyone unlucky enough to be stuck outside when the Purge begins isn’t likely to live through the night.

In Anarchy, that includes the recently estranged young couple Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez), single working-class mom Eva (Carmen Ejogo), and Eva’s teenage daughter, Cali (Zoë Soul). Shane and Liz are stranded in the streets of Los Angeles when their car breaks down; Eva and Cali had planned to hunker down in their modest apartment, but violent circumstances roust them from the safety of their building. All four eventually find themselves in the care of a man known only as Sergeant (Frank Grillo), a soft-spoken and armed-to-the-teeth badass who has ventured out in his armored muscle car on Purge Night with deadly intent.

Much of Anarchy is concerned with getting the band together, so to speak, and DeMonaco does a good job of weaving the three separate storylines together. No one will ever accuse him of favoring wordplay to gunplay, but casting goes a long way in a film like this, and the characters, particularly Sergeant and Eva, are sympathetic and reasonably well drawn. Once the characters are together, Anarchy plays out as a series of tautly orchestrated cat-and-mouse hunts punctuated by explosions of ultra-violence as the group tries to make its way to a safe haven. There’s not much mystery about which member of the group is the weakest link, but the plot takes a couple of surprising turns.

So Anarchy’s setup is inherently more dynamic than its predecessor’s, but the franchise already seems to have hit a wall when it comes to its high-concept hook. The idea of the Purge is filled with potential, but DeMonaco plays it safe and only treads in areas that have been already been mapped out in detail by properties such as The 10th Victim, Battle Royale, and, most recently, The Hunger Games. Though Anarchy is technically a better-made film than The Purge, it’s not as interesting when it comes to its agenda. The original asked us to sympathize with at least a few members of the one percent, while Anarchy’s dominant note is “rich people suck.”

The heavy-handedness of the first film’s social commentary is dialed up to 37 this time around. Besides all the masked maniacs waving machetes around, Sergeant and his strays must go toe-to-toe with hunting parties whose job is to kidnap the unfortunate—read: people who can’t afford sophisticated, high-tech security systems—and drag them back to fortified compounds so the wealthy can Purge in safety. If that’s too subtle for you, don’t worry; there’s also a Black Panthers-esque gang of militants whose leader will repeatedly and loudly explain why the Purge favors the upper class at the deadly expense of the poor.

A lot of these complaints feel a bit like being mad at a chili dog for not being a steak, though. Like its predecessor, The Purge: Anarchy works quite well as a genre-savvy B-movie. It’s too relentlessly grim to be called fun, but it’s almost always compelling, and it’s ultimately satisfying in an unpleasant, grindhouse sort of way.