I recently spent a sick day at home, trying to recuperate from a nasty cold. In the grand tradition of sick days, I decided to spend it on the couch watching movies and catching up on shows I had recorded. So with the cat sleeping on my lap, I fired up The Purge: Anarchy (2014). When this hit theaters I remember being curious. It had the look of an intense thrill ride. And on my sick day, I was looking for something just like that: a genre exercise in excess. Bring on the clichés and mindless action. Turns out this movie offered all of that, but it also pleasantly surprised me with its dynamic narrative and the fierce intensity of the lead actor, Frank Grillo.
The Purge: Anarchy is the story of one night in the not-to-distant future during the annual government-sanctioned Purge, when US citizens are allowed—even encouraged—to go out into the night and “purge” their neighborhoods and cities of other human life. This twelve hour Purge acts as a thinning of the herd, as it were, and government statistics state that it has curtailed crime drastically on the other 364 days of the year. It seems once everyone gets it out of their systems on Purge night, there’s less need to commit heinous crimes the rest of the year. Or so the government, now led by the social Darwinist group calling themselves the New Founding Fathers, would have us believe. Like the best genre movies, this one starts to reveal the complexities of the basic plot as we delve further into the Purge night. It stands alongside a host of other great genre movies about people trying to survive a nightmare evening under attack—from a bona fide classic like the original Assault on Precinct 13 to the largely forgotten but riveting Judgment Night—as prime examples of totally immersive viewing experiences. This film hooks us from the start, when it drops us into Los Angeles mere hours before the Purge begins. We watch scenes of the various characters winding down their days, preparing to barricade themselves in their homes before the Purge begins. We see one character, who will be the main protagonist, ominously preparing his arsenal of weapons, then driving out into the night in a heavily tricked out armored vehicle. Then, quickly, the Purge has begun. The movie doesn’t waste time, propelling us right into the action and then rarely letting up for the duration of its running time. It’s classic genre filmmaking at its best.
The cast is comprised of your standard b-movie characters: the quiet and timid mother and her burgeoning radical teenage daughter, often at odds; the husband and wife considering separation at the start of the film; and the grizzled loner on a mysterious mission who leads this ragtag group through the war zone that is downtown LA on Purge night. The loner, played by Frank Grillo, is currently or formerly law enforcement. Although little is revealed about him during the movie, including his name, his expert training and experience are evident from the start. Early in the night, he happens upon these four people, stranded for various reasons and utterly helpless to survive the night on their own. Thus begins Grillo’s character’s second mission of the evening, to get this group off the streets and to safety—and remember we’re still unclear of his fist mission. Is he just a random purger? Not quite. He appears to have a moral code, to be moving through the night with a goal in mind. Slowly, we discover he’s on a mission of revenge for his son’s death at the wheel of a drunk driver. He’s going to kill the man who killed son, the man who eluded jail time on a technicality. Cali, the teenager in the group, works furiously to talk him out of whatever he’s planning do during the Purge. She and the Sergeant (as we later here him called) share an uneasy connection during the night, she seeing the good in him that he likely doesn’t even see in himself, and he seeing something familiar in her, possibly a reminder of his son. This exchange sums up how direct Cali is with this heavily armed stranger, unafraid to ask him personal questions, and how the Sergeant keeps her at bay, albeit with a sense of humor.
Cali: What’s your name?
Cali: You’re good with guns. I’m guessing you’re either a cop or a criminal, huh?
Sergeant: And I’m guessing you’re either a pain in my ass or a pain in my ass.
As their harrowing journey through the streets of LA intensifies, the Sergeant forms a sort of replacement family for his deceased son and ex-wife with Cali and her mother Eva. This is subtle at first, but by film’s end it’s damn near explicit.
Frank Grillo gives a star-making performance as the Sergeant, in a role that a lesser actor might not have handled as deftly. Previously, I was familiar with him from his role in Captain America: The Winter Solider, from the same year, where his magnetism and incredible elevator fight scene with Chris Evans’ Cap drew my attention. At first his character in The Purge: Anarchy is presented as the classic strong silent type, methodically moving through the night on his revenge mission. When he sees Eva and Cali being physically assaulted and about to be abducted, Grillo starts to reveal the inner turmoil the Sergeant is struggling with. As he watches from his car, he repeats to himself, “Just keep driving.” Grillo’s does some amazing work with very little in the scene, using his quiet line delivery and facial expressions to lay bare just how much he’s wrestling with indecision—continue on to complete his personal mission, or stop and help these victims. It’s a fantastic piece of acting, up to and including when he springs into action to save Eva and Cali, laying waste to a handful of purgers. Later in the film, Grillo and Zoe Soul, who plays Cali, have a heated discussion about purging—she is trying to talk him out of whatever he’s planning to do, attempting to reach the good man she knows is inside of him. Why is he out, armed for battle during the Purge, she wants to know? If he saved them, he’s clearly not all bad, she must be thinking. Eventually he’s had enough and tells her to walk behind him with her mother, to leave him alone. But not long after, he stops them and removes his bullet proof vest and puts it on Cali. Grillo’s firm but gentle acting in this scene uncovers further layers of depth to the Sergeant. Clearly, he seems something in Cali that reminds him of his son. Cali and Eva are moved by the gesture. It’s in scenes like this throughout the film where Grillo really excels. However, this is a genre flick with loads of action, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out how absolutely awesome he is in the scenes of mayhem. When the bullets are flying, he’s barking orders and directing traffic to protect his group while simultaneously firing back on their attackers. He rarely misses, most likely due to this training, but also because this is a genre movie and he’s clearly intended to be the good guy that we root for.
The film’s premise is a rich one that could lead to further explorations in future films. In fact, this is a sequel of sorts to The Purge (2013), but the only connection between the films is that they take place on Purge nights. They feature different casts. Not having seen The Purge I can’t speak to that film, but The Purge: Anarchy expands the world building of the franchise by revealing a radical group of revolutionaries who are rising up to fight back against the Purge. The film is making obvious statements on class and race, showing us how the rich remain in their guarded and secure mansions during the Purge and have victims brought to them for slaughter. The rich have long been feeding off the backs of the poor, but in this movie they’re literally killing them for sport. The Purge is literal class warfare, with the poor and minorities overwhelmingly the main victims on Purge nights. There is also more to be done with the Sergeant’s story, and as it’s no secret Grillo is returning to the next Purge film to reprise his role, chances are we’ll learn more about his character. I won’t reveal the ending of The Purge: Anarchy, but I will say that it feels earned and like the right way to complete the Sergeant’s story in this particular film. It was a wholly satisfying science fiction/thriller/social commentary movie to watch on a sick day, and it’s moved into my personal pantheon of favorite, similarly themed genre flicks—John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York, The Warriors, and Judgment Night, to name just a few.