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The Purge: Anarchy

By PIERS MARCHANT Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published July 18, 2014 at 6:00 a.m.

The Purge: Anarchy

75 Cast: Michael K. Williams, Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zoe Soul, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez

Director: James DeMonaco

Rating: R, for strong disturbing violence and for language

Running time: 103 minutes

You might not be aware of this, but approximately five years from now, our government will be taken over by a nebulous group of bureaucrats who refer to themselves as the New Founding Fathers. One of their first orders of business will be to establish an annual "purge," whereupon, for exactly 12 hours one night of the year, all crime, including rape, murder and torture, will be legal for anyone wishing to be a part of it (and, of course, their victims, who don't have a say in the matter). Just why this is seen as a beneficial policy will be left hanging, as will any data to support the resulting statistics that has unemployment at a record low and crime rates virtually nonexistent the rest of the year.

As Hollywood high concept goes, it's a fair framework, I suppose, and in the right hands, could be an interesting way to either investigate or (more likely) skewer America's continued obsession with guns, crime and self-protection. However, writer/director James DeMonaco's film seeks to be neither political -- at least in any considered way -- nor satiric. Instead, it takes this idea and turns it into a basic survive-the-night action thriller, along the lines of The Warriors or Attack the Block.

Given the setup, the plot is pretty much a standard contrivance. With the purge night in full effect, the only people besides anarchic criminals, organized gang-bangers, and (it turns out) military forces who would dare be caught outside are there by pure, unfortunate accident. The film establishes three sets of characters -- a man known only as Sergeant (Frank Grillo) who ventures out to avenge the death of his son by a drunken driver, subsequently acquitted due to a legal "technicality"; Eva (Carmen Ejogo), a waitress, and her outspoken daughter, Cali (Zoe Soul), who are abducted from their apartment and dragged onto the street; and young couple Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez), in the process of separating, who get stuck in the city when their car breaks down.

Naturally, all three factions come together at the exact same moment when Sergeant takes pity on Eva and Cali struggling with their abductors in the street and shoots them free. Shane and Liz, meanwhile, take the opportunity to sneak into Sergeant's heavily armor-plated car, so the poor man has little choice but to take these hapless schlubs with him to safety, fighting their way through the chaos of bodies, guns and marauding death squads as they go.

Somehow, they all manage to survive mostly intact until they are whisked away to be sold to a swanky group of rich WASP-y white people ("Mr. Lockhart and his wife, Lauren") who intend to do their own version of a purge, only heavily slated in their favor, and being observed by everyone else safely behind bullet-proof glass. Just like those one percenters, taking something as basic and bloody as a grisly night of mayhem and turning it into some kind of spectacle for their amusement.

The film has aspirations of being something a bit darker and deeper than just a brainless, bloody action fable -- there is a growing anarchic movement led by charismatic revolutionary Carmelo (Michael K. Williams), who works to incite a growing mob of disgruntled citizens to overthrow the evil NFF and do away with the purge; and there are numerous allusions to the purge as a quasi-religious event with prayers being meted out before mass killings and the reference to purgers as "releasing the beast" in order to "cleanse" themselves -- but DeMonaco can't afford to alienate his audience, and has no intention of making any kind of grand statement other than to note the inherent unfairness of a system that targets the poor underclass while leaving the wealthy almost entirely unscathed. Politically, it dances just on the fringes of saying something without ever quite committing, sort of like a bloodier version of The Hunger Games, only with dark camera filters and a good deal more armor-piercing bullets.

Thus, whatever deeper philosophical underpinnings DeMonaco might have intended get drowned out by the hail of automatic gunfire, squirting CGI-enhanced blood squibs, and a herky-jerky, hand-held camera that obfuscates the action scenes far more than illuminates them.

Despite the film's continued pretensions otherwise, there's really not much more to this than a group of relative strangers struggling to stay alive through the course of a particularly brutal and ungoverned night of violence. Other than to set up the inevitable sequel (the "purge" is, after all, an annual event), and keep rolling in the summer dog days of box office ROI (return on investment), where smaller budgeted studio films can eke out a decent, little existence. Improbabilities abound -- the property damage alone on a night such as this would seem to cancel out any financial gain from the process; idiotic lessons are learned, and the sun eventually rises out of the East once again, drawing a close to another particularly silly Hollywood conceit.

MovieStyle on 07/18/2014

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