The set up of the first Purge movie was simple but slightly nonsensical: one day a year the government allows twelve uninterrupted hours of total lawlessness on the theory that a small dose of chaos would let people get it out of their system. Of course, people generally don't schedule their murderous urges when they would be convenient. Also, I'm not sure that murder is the sort of thing you can get out of your system. But anyway...
For the first half of the movie at least I could overlook those flaws, because the Purge was ultimately only using that premise to set up a home invasion scenario that would force it's protagonists to decide a moral quandary: its characters had to choose between saving their family at the cost of sacrificing a total stranger, or potentially saving that stranger but putting themselves at risk. As long as the movie was exploring an interesting ethical question I could forgive its gaps in logic – although when it devolved into a generic gore-fest I did start to lose my patience a bit.
Since the first film was widely criticized for being uneven, it was inevitable that its sequel would try to streamline its plot. Unfortunately, the Purge: Anarchy makes the mistake a lot of sequels make - it doubles down on the wrong parts of the original. It has no interest in asking any thorny questions - it starts out as a generic gore-fest and never gets any better. And that means that it’s much, much harder to forgive its inexplicable premise.
The Purge: Anarchy follows several people who happened to get trapped on the streets after the turmoil has commenced. We meet them separately and we quickly grasp their relatively straight forward problems. Then they meet up on the streets, where their problems are basically never referenced again, because they have to spend all their effort on helping each other avoid some homicidal psychos in an 18 wheeler. Obviously, having an ensemble cast instead of focusing on a particular character diffuses the amount of attention we’re going to give to any specific person, but it does allow the film to go introduce more viewpoints on what it would feel like to live through the Purge.
Unfortunately, those perspectives aren’t actually that illuminating; there’s only so much novelty you can get from people running away from armed murderers. Furthermore, the little extra details we see around the edges of the movie don’t add up. As our small band of heroes try to escape to safety they keep seeing billboards from the new government bragging about how much the Purge has done to stabilize the country's crime rate.... But the more I saw these ads the more I asked myself: governments exert power because they promise their people safety, so how is a government that allows total lawlessness going to function? This film does the opposite of what a dystopian government normally does, which is offer so much law and order that it becomes stifling. What reason would anyone have for putting up with this?
My next big hurdle: these characters are chased not just by unruly gangs, but also by highly armed military types, and later, by rich people who are hunting for sport. Again, this raises a basic question about how the Purge is supposed to work as a stabilizing function. Once people have started to stock up on military weapons to amuse themselves / defend themselves during the Purge, what's going to keep them from using the weapons indiscriminately after the police are back on the clock? Every detail that the Purge: Anarchy adds to the mythos makes the premise make less sense.
Those concerns were definitely in the first Purge, but that film was able to side step them a bit because it put some effort into trying to establish interesting characters with compelling problems beyond basic survival. However, the Purge: Anarchy is too busy throwing violent obstacles at its large cast for it to build up any of these people up enough for you to care about them. There’s no cutting this movie a little bit of slack because it’s got a little bit of charm - it has no charm. There’s no forgiving the blank space characters because they are just meant to be stand ins propping up a thought experiment - this film isn't a metaphor. No, this movie is nothing but a string of shoot-outs.
Thus the question arises: if the film’s raison d’etre is to show us cool shoot outs, how cool are the shoot outs? To put it simply: they are terrible. In the first movie the Purgers wore creepy masks, but here they have been replaced by generic SWAT team gear for the most part and it is a much less visually interesting as a result. Also, the cinematography is terrible. Most of the movie takes place on city streets at night, and most of the scenes are underlit. The intention was probably to make it look grimy, but instead it just looks muddy. But even if the scenes were well shot, I doubt I would have cared – the staging is straight out of an unimaginative first person shooter video game.
The Purge series is part of a long tradition of movies that try to merge violent setpieces with social commentary. But the Hunger Games justifies its premise by creating well drawn characters to root for; the original Death Race 2000 had a strong sense of humor that covered up some of the holes in its plot; and even Looper got around some of the headaches that are inescapable with time travel stories by making it clear that it was only interested in time travel insofar as it wanted to ask "if you could go back in time and murder Hitler… would you?" You might buy into the worlds those films are trying to create or you might not – but they at least made a good argument for believing in them. The first Purge tried to do that, too, although it fell a bit short of its goal. This sequel, on the other hand, has nothing to offer aside from nonsense and noise. But I suppose that's fitting - after all, I should't have expected logic and competence from a film with "anarchy" in the title.
Winner: The Cat