Review: ‘The Purge: Anarchy’ improves on first film, but not enough to make it matter

It's safe to say I was not a fan of “The Purge.”

James DeMonaco, who wrote and directed the first film, is back to do both jobs again this time, and I think he's made leaps and bounds in terms of making use of his big idea. My biggest problem with the original film was that the scale of the story being told was a financial consideration, not a creative one, and it felt like it wasted the basic idea of a governmental decision to sanction 12 hours per year where anyone can kill anyone for any reason.

Now, what you think of that idea will go a long way to your overall reaction to “The Purge: Anarchy,” but what is clear is that DeMonaco set out to make pretty much the opposite of the first film, telling a story that allows us to get a glimpse at the Purge as a whole. He still has a tin ear for dialogue, but it's obvious that his ambition is something he's really pushing himself to live up to with the second film. There is very little about “The Purge: Anarchy” that I could call sophisticated or subtle or even especially smart. But it is definitely a film by a guy who has a story to tell and he's committed to it this time, and damn if I don't admire the effort.

Here's a fun way to watch the film. Pretend it's a “Punisher” comic book, and Frank Grillo is playing The Punisher. Do that, and the film gets sort of awesome at times. Grillo is actually playing a man with no name, referred to in passing as “Sergeant,” and he has one goal. He is going to use the Purge to hunt down a man who did him a great wrong. He is going to kill that man. And then whatever happens, it doesn't matter. That's his whole game plan.

But when he sees Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and her daughter Calie (Zoe Soul) being roughed up by some weird goons who are dressed like the Stormtrooper-stand-ins on some post-“Battlestar Galactica” piece of TV sci-fi junk, and he just can't watch that. It sets something off in him, and the film ultimately becomes a wrestling match between Sergeant's angels and his devils. Which of his natures is going to win out by the time the Purge is over? Will he fight to protect life, or will he do anything to take it? Along the way, Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) end up also taking refuge with the Sergeant as he makes his way through the streets of LA.

DeMonaco is more successful at creating a spooky masked street gang in this one, and he also has fun playing with expectations in the way various characters behave. Ultimately, I think he's got something on his mind here, and he tries to make this a more overtly haves-versus-have-nots oriented story. It's really, really, really really, really obvious, and when the film reaches its final set-piece, it feels sort of inevitable. I also came very close to wrapping things up early when there's a long rapey sequence that is admirably gross but really unpleasant and drawn out. I've talked before about what a cheap short-cut that is, and this film practically gallops to get to that scene. The only reason I stayed was because it was apparent that someone would show up to rescue them before it actually happened.

That's the sad truth about the movie… it's unfortunately obvious. DeMonaco has definitely grown from the first film to the second one, and I commend him for the ways in which he improved. But I think he needs to work with a writer next time, someone who can take these ideas and these situations and make them work in a more natural way, or a more stylized way, or a more darkly comic way, but in a way that would feel focused. “The Purge: Anarchy” improves upon the original, but it's still a long way from being the sort of smart, savage satire it would have to be to fully exploit such a socially charged hook, or the Sam Peckinpah style blunt instrument that would simply be impossible to ignore.

Paul Verhoeven's “The Purge”? Sign me up. But this one is really just for people who are feeling nostalgic since they finished playing the last “Grand Theft Auto.”

“The Purge: Anarchy” opens in theaters tomorrow.