Last year’s “The Purge” made a sparse, modestly thrilling movie out of a dumb premise — for 12 hours every year, all crime is legal! — and hit pay dirt at the box office. The natural consequence of this, as you know, is a hastily produced sequel. It has arrived, 13 months later, in the form of “The Purge: Anarchy” (was it not anarchy before??), a considerably less interesting but not altogether worthless exercise in ham-handed social commentary and wanton violence.
Writer-director James DeMonaco has returned for the sequel, so at least there is consistency in tone. This time, rather than focus on a family barricaded in their house during the Purge, we zero in on a handful of unconnected civilians who, for various reasons, find themselves out on the streets during this perilous time. Sergeant (Frank Grillo), a gruff, righteous avenger with ample firearms training, is using the opportunity to settle an old score. A waitress (Carmen Ejogo) and her teenage daughter (Zoe Soul) must flee the safety of their apartment when a mysterious masked militia comes for them. A bickering young couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez), stranded by car trouble, are likewise in need of safe harbor. These five band together (reluctantly, in Sergeant’s case) to stay alive while seeking refuge.
The bulk of the film consists of these characters running from or fighting with bad guys who don’t have motives beyond “well, it’s Purge night, might as well go out and kill some folk.” Random terrorization is effective in small doses, but it loses its power when it’s the basis for the whole story. Our “heroes” (using the term loosely; the young husband is an ineffectual slug) might as well be in a video game, taking down faceless drones sent by an unseen super-enemy. By the time we arrive at the bigger picture (it involves the rich using Purge night to hunt humans for sport without fear of reprisal), with no emotional investment in anyone but Sergeant, we’re left to watch scene after tedious scene of people we don’t care about running from anonymous pursuers.
Michael K. Williams (Omar from “The Wire”) appears as a revolutionary who opposes the new turn America has recently taken, pointing out the disparity in the way the poor and the rich suffer the consequences of the Purge. This and a few other instances of social commentary give the film enough of a hook to keep it interesting (if not exactly profound), and Grillo’s solid lead performance is intense. You could do worse for a Friday night thriller, but like they say in the movie, if you’re not Purging, you should probably just stay home.
C (1 hr., 43 min.; )