The surprise 20-to-1 earnings-to-budget ratio of a little dystopian murderfest called "The Purge" last year made its spawn, "The Purge 2: Anarchy," a foregone conclusion. What wasn't inevitable was that the sequel would be a stronger movie than the original. Rather than pinning us inside a single McMansion during America's newest/worst holiday, the annual 12 hours of sanctioned lawlessness known as the Purge, "Anarchy" takes us through a gnarly overnight tour of anything-goes Los Angeles. It's still a B-movie at heart — small budget, actors you've never heard of, occasionally bucket-footed dialogue — but with enough verve, and with a measure of modesty around its own sadism, that it makes for a watchable summer diversion.
Not that it's an easy road to travel. Here's a partial tour of IMDB's plot keywords: "revenge," "hanged man," "body in a dumpster," "sororicide," "shot in the forehead," "person on fire," "kidnapping," "survival horror" ... it goes on like this. Basically, yes, for one night a year America calls off the rule of law and lets everyone kill the living life out of one another with impunity. To a waitress mother and her teenaged daughter in the projects (Carmen Ejogo and Zoë Soul) this is a night to bar the door, put a pistol on the table and try to keep their heads down. To a bickering young couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) it's an occasion to put off preparations until perilously close to the beginning of the purge. To a mysterious, well-armed father (Frank Grillo) it's a chance to visit a man who wronged him. To just about everyone else we meet, it's an orgiastic bout of hunting people in the streets.
Circumstances conspire to pull these folks together in the open, where they're likely to be perforated by recreational snipers or bludgeoned by random lunatics or run down by spooky motorcycle creeps. Director/writer James DeMonaco builds this world as a Halloween from hell, in which roving gangs hunt with dogs and flame-throwers and yeeeeesh. While the Purge itself is about as likely to happen as a unicorn cotillion, the behavior of people given the premise makes an unsettling amount of sense. Surely DeMonaco means here to evoke images of open-carry activists swinging AKs around Target parking lots and Chili's foyers as if the O.K. Corral could break out any moment, anywhere.
In a too-real sense, Americans' firearms fetish is the real subject of "Anarchy," which tries, with limited success, to tie violence to consumer culture. In "Anarchy," the Purge is credited with keeping overall crime and unemployment low, in large part because it thins out the ranks of the poor, who can't afford protection. The rich are able to quarantine themselves through the chaos, giving them the luxury of fervent belief in the benefits of the Purge. DeMonaco notices, about America, that it's a fine place to live until you're caught out-of-doors. Then you're largely on your own.
Even if it's not always a convincing take, it's oddly satisfying — there's an eat-the-rich thread running through "Anarchy" that feels oddly original for an American movie. It also feels overdue, given how many people would accept the premise, even allegorically, that letting millionaires and billionaires dominate society poses serious threats to the survival of the hoi polloi. Maybe DeMonaco overreaches, at times clumsily, in raising that point in a mainstream venue. And yet, wow, even for a movie called "Anarchy," you gotta admire the straightforward gall.