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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
I really don’t know why Frank Grillo never got any big roles up until a few years ago. I didn’t even take notice of him until he played the antagonist oil worker who butts heads with Liam Neeson’s wolf hunter in 2012’s The Grey. Though I haven’t seen it, Nick has spoke highly of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Grillo’s role in particular. Despite the fact that he’s awesome and utterly badass, Frank Grillo never seemed to get his big break until only a few years ago. He really should have been anchoring movies like these for two decades at least. I’d like to imagine a world where he got a chance to play the Punisher or the lead character in a Death Wish reboot or something. Anyway, starring in a sequel to 2013’s surprise summer hit, The Purge: Anarchy is close enough I guess. The movie isn’t any great shakes, but Grillo is wonderful.
That’s why I start this review with Frank Grillo. He’s the best part of a movie that would absolutely sink were it not for him. His character, who goes unnamed until almost the last 10 minutes of the movie (and honestly, it doesn’t matter what his name is anyway), is an old-school vigilante in the vein of Frank Castle or Paul Kersey. His stoic willingness to participate in the annual Purge, an event where all crime is legal (for the most part) for twelve hours one night each year, paints him as both a sociopath and a grizzled survivor to those around him. Grillo is out for blood, but he’s not a bad guy. He’s a man with a code, and he also has an armored car full of high-powered weapons. In short, he’s the most badass guy in a film series that was in dire need of a badass (sorry Ethan Hawke).
The Purge: Anarchy isn’t a very good movie. Written and directed by James DeMonaco and produced by horror connoisseur Jason Blum, it has both a bigger budget and a bigger scale story than last year’s claustrophobic original, and it is also appreciably better than that movie as well. Mother/daughter pair Eva and Cali (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul) are taken prisoner by a highly organized SWAT team after their slum-like apartment is invaded. Meanwhile, Shane and Liz (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) are stranded after trying to escape a marauding pack of masked inner-city teenagers intent on killing them or capturing them or worse. As all of this is going on, a revenge-seeking Frank Grillo (who I like to think is playing himself, as if this were a documentary and all the weapons are actually owned by Frank Grillo and this is just his normal life) is participating in the Purge, looking to exact righteous revenge on someone who wronged him in the past. These five people’s paths intersect while low budget chaos, murder, and mayhem go on all around them.
Last year’s The Purge was filmed on a miniscule budget of just three million dollars. It was not a great film, but had a killer hook – what if crime was legal for twelve hours. This still fascinates me as an idea, particularly from a sociological perspective. This year’s production essentially quadruples the budget of the original, allowing for bigger sets (this film takes place largely on city streets compared to last year’s film’s use of a house for much of its running time) and bigger ideas (and also greater mayhem). Though the film isn’t directed particularly well, DeMonaco does at least mostly shy away from shaky cam and/or jump cut editing that has become prevalent in film’s like these. There is also some pretty gory stuff here, and the blood and guts effects at least looked practical to me. The film also has moments of genuine fright and tension, particularly one sequence where Grillo must take out several armed rich people hunting him.
The script and dialogue are, however, pretty horrible. The film tries and tries to be subversive and intelligent about American society and our obsession with the second amendment, but it just comes off as ham-fisted and sophomoric for the most part. The political statements made otherwise (the rich hunting the poor and the weak, for instance) are done in some interesting ways. I liked the scenes of the hunted becoming the hunter, for example (this was probably the best sequence in the film in all honesty) and I liked the idea of the old and the infirm essentially selling themselves out to be murdered so their family can have some money. But for the most part, the political and thematic dialogue is almost painful to experience. Case in point being the character of Carmelo, a revolutionary portrayed by the great Michael K. Williams. The character isn’t much more than a cartoon as portrayed in this film, though Williams hams him up enough to at least make the performance campy and entertaining.
There existed a kernel of interest in the original The Purge film that was never quite exploited in quite the way I might have wanted it to be. The Purge: Anarchy, while not a good film, at least tries to be more exploitative and engrossing. I miss small films like these. Blum and company have plans to essentially release one of these each year with different characters and stories. I don’t have any problem with that whatsoever, especially if they continually improve on each other the way Anarchy did over the original. Though the political stuff is kind of dumb (but at least entertaining in a laughable way), the mayhem, murder, carnage, action, and whatnot can be very slickly done. The dialogue is absolutely atrocious at times and characters are cardboard cutouts (particularly Shane and Liz, who I cared nothing about), but the film is a pretty good showcase for the awesomeness that is Grade-A badass Frank Grillo. At least he’ll hopefully get some more work out of this. He is easily the best character in the whole film and arguably the main reason to see this movie in the first place.