I had a lot of specific expectations for The Purge, a film that I imagined would feature actual purging, sustained commentary on the ever-increasing income gap of the United States and a look at what happens on the streets on this once-yearly night of lawlessness, a night when all crime ("even murder") is sanctioned by the New Founding Fathers of our government.
A year later, The Purge: Anarchy met those expectations.
It's March 21, 2023, two and a half hours before the annual Purging. The film starts with a montage of various characters preparing for the year's Purge: a diner waitress and single mother named Eva (Carmen Ejogo) is turned down for a raise she needs to pay for her father's medication, then heads home to her shabby apartment to cook dinner for her teenaged daughter Cali (Zoë Soul). Her father (John Beasley) grumbles about the cost of the medication, a needless expense because he's done for anyway, and then takes a nap, determined to sleep through this awful night. A young married couple named Shane and Liz (Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez) drive to Shane's sister's house, arguing over whether they should tell her that they're planning to separate. They stop for gas and are met with a group of would-be purgers, wearing unsettling masks and make-up, circling Shane and Liz's little car menacingly before the couple drives away.
And then we have Frank Grillo's unnamed Sergeant, hard at work in a tiny living space with no personality, loading weapons and stocking a bag with survival equipment, silent and focused until his ex-wife arrives to confront him with his plans, begging him not to take this risk. "You're not really going out there, are you?" He tells her to go back to her new family and leave him to his revenge. He's the kind of action hero we've loved for decades: quiet, charismatic, mysterious with just enough backstory to help us understand the stakes. Someone cares about this man, and he's putting his life in danger for an unknown quest that means everything to him.
The Purge begins, and those stakes escalate immediately. Eva and Cali discover that Papa Rico is missing - he sold himself to a rich family for The Purge, in order to free Eva and Cali from his medical bills and a life of poverty in a society that feeds the poor to the vicious one night a year. Cali's been following the broadcast diatribes of a revolutionary named Carmelo (Michael K. Williams), who avers that unemployment and crime have been nearly eradicated since The Purge not, as the New Founding Fathers claim, because society has learned to "release the beast" in an authorized capacity, but because the only people who suffer from The Purge are the poor. It's the poor who cannot protect themselves or their homes, those who even have homes to protect. It's the poor who are still on the streets when the sirens herald the twelve-hour period of anarchy. Soon, all that will be left are the wealthy and the powerful - but when that happens, who will they Purge? When Cali discovers what her grandfather has done in the name of protecting her and her mom - when she learns that there are wealthy families out there willing to pay $100,000 for the chance to kill a sick, old man without leaving the comfort and safety of their mansions - she knows Carmelo is right. Carmelo looms large in the background of this tableau, and he feels like a character who is meant to come into his own in yet another sequel. He has a half-completed plotline, but he stands for something, for the poor. He is the voice of the film, saying overtly what we already know writer/director James DeMonaco believes.
Shane and Liz are on the highway to his sister's house when their car breaks down. (This is why you don't cut it so close when you're traveling out of town for The Purge.) They realize that the masked purgers cut a line under their car, disabling the engine. They try to hail passing cars, but it's minutes until The Purge now and no one is stopping. They'll be on the street all night. And they're not alone - a group of SWAT-like soldiers break into Eva and Cali's apartment building and start massacring its residents. The women are being dragged into an armored van when Frank Grillo (the fact that his character has no name makes it easy to think of him simply as "Frank Grillo") sees them struggling mightily against their captors, and he reluctantly pauses his mission to rescue them. He ends up being saddled with Shane and Liz, as well, and the rest of the film follows the five characters as they cross the city together, Grillo doing his gruff, recalcitrant best to lead these civilians to safety.
In nearly every way, this is Grillo's movie. He is, in a word, a stud. He's a superhero. He's gorgeous and tough and almost preternaturally capable, and, despite his brusque demeanor, he appears to care about these mouthy civilians who barely take the time to thank him once he's risked his life and his mission to protect them. He and Cali seem to have a particularly deep connection - he admires this nearly fearless teenager who speaks her mind at all times. He gives her his bulletproof vest and tells her that he rescued her and her mom because "you were putting up a hell of a fight" against the soldiers trying to capture her.
And it's true - though this is Grillo's movie, Eva and Cali are no victims. (Shane and Liz, on the other hand... Actually, that's not fair. Liz can handle herself, but Gilford's performance borders on the utterly absent here.) The Purge: Anarchy has some interesting things to say about what it means to be a single, low-income woman on Purge night. As Eva is walking home from her job, hours before The Purge is even scheduled to begin, she is beset on all sides by sleazy men offering to "protect" her. She's a beautiful woman in a diner uniform, walking alone in a crummy part of town, so she must need the protection of every man she meets - at a cost, of course. And before the soldiers break into her apartment building, Eva and Cali are already fighting off a violent neighbor who wants to punish Eva for not succumbing to his charms. He gleefully menaces mother and daughter with rape, and they only escape through being captured by a group of stronger men with bigger weapons - and they only escape that by being rescued by Grillo. It's something, then, that they never feel like victims. They fight back with everything they have at every moment. They're physically overpowered, but they never stop fighting - and they're never daunted.
And the film has plenty to say about income inequality, as well, and the utter disregard the rich have for the fates of the poor. It's not subtle - and it gets less subtle by the end, the film growing broader by the minute. But it's what I wanted out of The Purge, and was delighted to find here: a well-paced action movie with clear stakes, a badass hero and real ideas, even if they're somewhat half-baked in their execution. The Purge: Anarchy is a fun movie, but it's not a thoughtless one.