And now for Fun with Cognitive Dissonance: it is possible for a sequel to to be a lot better than its predecessor, and still end up mostly a huge pile of shit. I give you The Purge: Anarchy, which takes the concept laid out in last year's The Purge - every March 21, the government of the United States permits any and all crime for twelve hours overnight, without any fear of punishment - and manages to do something considerably more interesting with it than a satirically blunt, fuck-all dull home invasion thriller. And yet it is still not interesting at all. It's kind of halfway decent for the bulk of the second act, when it's basically just a clumsier version of The Warriors, but the aggressively strained exposition, and the flailing idiocy of the climax, where the film lays out all its cards and indulges itself in the kind of monumentally dim political commentary that one might expect of a stoned freshman hurrying to wrap up a poli sci paper, keep it from ever rising above a level too dreadful to even meet the minimal definition of "mediocre".

But let's accentuate the positive: better than The Purge. A whole mountain of better than The Purge, so much so that it would be easy to assume that Universal had instituted a regime change, but no: it's still written and directed by James DeMonaco, who is improving at a rate suggesting that around the fifth or six installment of what will surely be a franchise for a good long while now (the films fall in that budgetary range where even the most limited target audience for a wide-release horror movie will guarantee they aways turn a profit), he might finally turn out a genuinely good, socially insightful horror-thriller that works for most, or even all of its running time.

In the meantime, we must make do with TP: Anarchy as best we can. This film takes place a year later than the first, during the Purge of 2023 - the sixth annual Purge, we're told, one that takes place nine years after the New Founding Fathers (apparently a right-wing neofascist governing collective that achieves the impressive feat of making me feel sorry for the Tea Party for being so willfully misrepresented) were democratically elected, and if you do the math quickly, and discover that means the NFF came to power right here in 2014, and all of sudden the Purge universe is literally no longer compatible with our own (since we don't elect a president for another two years, which is clearly the implication), and it's no longer worth nitpicking all of the billion little ways it doesn't add up or make any sense, since the films have now openly conceded that they're outright fantasy, and not legitimate speculative fiction.

In '23, a whole bunch of seemingly unconnected threads are tossed our way, rather bluntly setting up Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and her daughter Cali (Zoë Soul), poor African-Americans who end up thrown out of their none-too-safe home in the projects of Los Angeles when masked vigilantes break into their building and start disappearing people into trucks; and Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez), poor married whites contemplating divorce who end up trapped outside when their car is sabotaged by a vicious gang of masked African-American thugs with much darker skin than Eva and Cali, and fuck the movie right in the face for not even realising that it did so; and a mysterious figure only ever known as Sergeant (Frank Grillo), driving around in an armored sedan and watching the streets nervously. These three groups will all coalesce into one, as Sergeant reluctantly saves Eva and Cali while Shane and Liz, having evaded their tormentors halfway across the L.A. metro area on foot, sneak into the back of his car. And from there, it's all about scrabbling across the city while around them, people are dying by the handful in government-sanctioned murder that allegedly lowers the crime and unemployment rates. Which still makes no sense, though Anarchy has the decency to imply that's just the line the government runs with, while the actual point of purging is just the good ol' pleasure of killing off the poor. Which introduces a brand new bundle of conceptual problems, but that's a rabbit hole it's best not to go down.

As I said, the middle stretch of the movie is basically okay: low-resources genre filmmaking in fine form, as a small clutch of well-defined two-note characters are shuttled from setpiece to setpiece. It resembles a halfway decent pastiche of John Carpenter in his Assault on Precinct 13 mode, plowing from one holy-shit-can-you-believe-that outburst of violence to the next quickly enough that you can't entirely notice that the connective tissue is pretty skimpy, or that the film has a painfully underdeveloped sense of its own scenario (it bothers me a lot more here than in the first film, as the scope of the action has been widened, that the Purgers seem interested only in committing murder, and not in all the other crimes: theft, arson, blowing up cars, pirating copyrighted material, pissing in public). It's not nearly as good as Carpenter, of course: the film's insistence on keeping its sights on junky political commentary prevents it from being any fun at all, and the unrelentingly dour tone manages to stomp on most of what appear to have been jokes in the screenplay.

Still, it has a certain continuous energy that does a lot to wipe up the laborious domino-setting of the beginning, or the absurdly manic finale, with its microscopically short attention span and distracting eagerness to complicate things at the exact moment they're supposed to be winding down. But it does give us a bit more of Michael K. Williams as Carmelo, a magnificently unsubtle Malcolm X surrogate who's the most lively personality the film contains, so I have to thank it for that.

Decent middle notwithstanding, Anarchy is still a pretty dire experience: it feels, for its entire running time, like someone shouting passionate but insufficiently thought-through political slogans. As with The Purge, I am fully in agreement with the things this film appears to be claiming: that old rich white people have built a society wonderfully designed to make things easy on themselves and unnecessarily hard on everybody else, and that things are only getting worse and worse as time goes by. But having that theme built on top of a "what if" scenario that's so perilously rickety at the foundation just won't work: if we're going to see how the Purge comments on our own society, we have to understand how it fits into its own society, and that never really happens, though it comes closer than it did in the first movie. And with all of the best, most functional parts of the film having the least to do with its obvious, urgently-voiced message, it's impossible to take that message very seriously. Kudos to Anarchy for saying things that most mainstream movies would rather remain apolitically neutral on, but it's simply not saying it well at all, and that matters a lot more than simply having good intentions.

Reviews in this series
The Purge (DeMonaco, 2013)
The Purge: Anarchy (DeMonaco, 2014)
The Purge: Election Year (DeMonaco, 2016)
The First Purge (McMurray, 2018)