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Sunday, March 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  Fair
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Strangers band together to survive a night of government-sanctioned crime in The Purge: Anarchy
L.A. lawless
A cruel playground rife with threats.
A cruel playground rife with threats.

When it came out last summer, the horror flick The Purge struck an unlikely chord. The outlandish yet provocative premise — that the government maintains social order with a free-for-all of lawlessness once a year — was a hook worthy of both Shirley Jackson and the Occupy movement, couched within a standard hide-and-seek home-invasion thriller.

The film was made for a cool $3 million and turned a mighty profit. So a year later, we find ourselves inevitably greeted by its sequel. The Purge: Anarchy wisely broadens the focus to several sets of characters on the streets of Los Angeles. There's Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez), two dumb kids stranded by car trouble at the worst possible hour; Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and Cali (Zoë Soul), a mother and daughter whose plans to hunker down prove futile; and Sergeant (Frank Grillo), a Punisher-like vigilante whose conscience ultimately gets the better of him. All five reluctantly team up to make it through the night.

Writer-director James DeMonaco returns to the series with the burden of exposition already eliminated, allowing him to treat downtown L.A. as a cruel playground where every intersection brings the promise of a new threat. Sergeant and company run afoul of white-collar poachers, territorial snipers and mask-wearing gangs reminiscent of those in The Warriors. The story has a welcome sense of continuous momentum, and DeMonaco has grown since his last Purge outing. He does a better job at skewering the entitled upper class and portraying the righteous anger of the targeted lower class, personified by Michael K. Williams' resistance leader, Carmelo.

The victims-to-be could have been a bit more endearing, but it's refreshing to see a reliable character actor like Grillo (Warrior, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) finally get the spotlight. His Sergeant is a suitably brooding antihero, as prone to compassion as he is to ruthlessness. When his story reaches its logical conclusion, he injects some welcome angst into an otherwise mindless marathon of murder.

To that end, the Purge films double as their own best metaphor, inviting audiences to cheer on an annual dose of bloodshed as they question its moral value. It's silly, to be sure, but here's hoping that next year's massacre shows at least as much improvement.

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