I recently–in front of The Witch, I think, inappropriately enough–saw the trailer for the third installment of the Purge franchise, which is coming out this summer under the fairly cute title The Purge: Election Year, and remembered that I’d heard that the first two movies in the series were better than I expected, so I decided it was time to track them down and give them a shot before the third one came out. I’m not sorry.
I think that I initially skipped The Purge (2013) because it looked like another in the glut of home invasion movies that we’d been getting, and the home invasion genre has never really been my thing. And while I guess it is a home invasion movie in the strictest sense, what it actually is is another remake of Assault on Precinct 13. This probably shouldn’t be surprising, since the writer/director of the entire Purge franchise was also the screenwriter of the 2005 version of Assault, which also starred Ethan Hawke, just in case the parallels were too subtle for you otherwise.
The Purge: Anarchy (2014), meanwhile, is pretty clearly the movie that The Purge always wanted to be, but had to wait until its second installment due to budgetary restrictions. While it still owes a big, big debt to John Carpenter movies, this one is more Escape from New York than Assault, taking its action to the streets as it follows a man out for revenge and four innocent bystanders caught–for one reason or another–out in the open during the Annual Purge. Frank Grillo–whose character, spoilers, apparently returns in the third film–anchors the movie in a role that feels like he’s practicing for a part as the Punisher that he’ll probably never get now that it went to Jon Bernthal instead. (Or maybe he was just warming up to play Crossbones in the Captain America movies.) Michael Kenneth Williams (Leonard from Hap & Leonard) also makes a brief appearance as the resistance leader with a name that could probably have dropped straight out of Escape from New York, Carmelo Johns.
Besides being decently directed and capable–at times–of generating tension, what makes the Purge franchise better than you’d expect is its ambition. In addition to their not-always-credible-but-always-thinking-big world building, these films want to be the kinds of violent social commentary that we used to get in movies like They Live and Robocop. While the titular Purge itself is sold, within the world of the movies, as an opportunity for individuals to “purge” themselves of their violent feelings once a year, thereby keeping crime rates down and everyone safe the rest of the time, what it is instead is an opportunity for the rich to “purge” the streets of “undesirables,” ie, the poor. If this was too subtle for you in the first movie (it wasn’t), it’s made explicit in Anarchy, when one character explains that people weren’t killing each other off in large enough numbers on their own, so professional teams were sent into the poor neighborhoods to pick off people who weren’t participating.
Along with its not-very-subtle take on class warfare, The Purge franchise also takes occasional aim at the gun lobby, and it’s probably no accident that the logo for the new political movement responsible for the Purge could be mistaken for the NRA if you squint.