How does the song go? "If I were John Carpenter and you were a lady." No, that doesn't get us anywhere. Let's just mention that the team behind The Purge franchise, as it threatens to become, are not unforthcoming in exercising their inner JC.
If the first Purge played like a variation on Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, the second episode (directed by the writer of the tolerable 2005 remake of that siege film) comes across like a tribute to the Carpenter's Escape from New York. Both films speak very much of their age's own anxieties. (It seems long ago that Manhattan looked on the point of anarchy.) Both have fun tearing apart an urban landscape. Only one of them is a classic, but you probably already knew that.
If The Purge had a problem, it was that it kept too much indoors. James DeMonaco has come up with a very useful premise for his dystopian adventures.
In the near future, a totalitarian US government – self-defined as the New Founding Fathers – institutes a policy allegedly aimed at allowing citizens to rid themselves of unavoidable criminal urges. One night every year, for a full 12 hours, an amnesty is issued on violent offenders. Theft, rape, assault and murder are all permitted. When the burghers have gotten all that hatred out of their systems, a great calm is expected to fall across the republic.
More than a few commentators have seen echoes of Shirley Jackson's famous story The Lottery, which ended with the inhabitants of a small town stoning a randomly selected neighbour to death. But something rather different is afoot here. The authorities' secret agenda involves an exercise in social engineering: the poor, less able to shut themselves away behind expensive security systems, will die in disproportionate numbers. All deliciously cynical.
In The Purge, we spent most of our time with a well-off family as they fought to repel an unexpected house invasion. There was much to enjoy, but one couldn't help but feel that most of the disreputable fun was going on elsewhere. For part two, DeMonaco drags us into the streets of Los Angeles (whose downtown region is as dilapidated as midtown Manhattan was at the time of Escape from New York) to follow three sets of troubled citizens coping differently with the evening of violence.
Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez), a young couple on the point of splitting up, get stranded when, before the sirens sound, a gang of Purge enthusiasts cut the brake cables on their car. Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and her daughter Cali (Zoë Soul) have been forced onto the streets for different reasons. Eventually, these two innocent pairings fall in with a dark stranger who is exploiting the Purge to exact revenge for an earlier outrage.
DeMonaco added some effective modifications to the initial premise. We learn that the wealthy, eager to kill in the safety of their mansions, now pay terminally ill people to undergo ritual slaughter. The film gets at further political shenanigans as it drifts towards a slightly overly complicated denouement.
In truth, there’s not a great deal of insight on display here. The (surely intended) paradox inherent in a critique of our violent urges that revels in blood, entrails and ordnance is certainly worth rolling guiltily about the tongue. The action sequences are well judged throughout. But we never get any closer to understanding which end of the fence the film-makers sit at.
If you close up one eye and swallow deeply, you could see The Purge: Anarchy as an argument for institutionalised violence. After all, this version of the US doesn't look too shabby or depraved.
Come to think of it, we used to ask similar questions of John Carpenter.