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There’s no denying that writer director James DeMonaco’s “The Purge” has an entertaining, if scarcely credible premise – in America 2022, society has reached a harmonious balance thanks to the titular yearly event when all crime is legalised for one night, with police and emergency services suspended. Initially supporting the carnage from a distance like good patriotic citizens are smug security system seller Ethan Hawke and his wife Lena Headey, whose peaceful and prosperous existence is threatened when their young son lets a hunted vagrant into their house, attracting the violent attentions of his psychotic pursuers.
Despite its wild concept, some viewers will undoubtedly be disappointed to learn that “The Purge” very quickly boils down to a simple home invasion thriller, with shades of “Straw Dogs” and early John Carpenter, the CCTV images of random urban butchery being limited to the opening credits. The futuristic setting counts for little, with nothing in the way of advanced technology or weaponry, and there’s an amusing refusal to explore or explain the presumably bizarre circumstances and decision making process that led to the Purge being created.
This is satire with broad, clumsy strokes, James DeMonaco making political, socio-economic and moral statements without either thought or substance, and though the conceit of making the villains upper class preppy collegiate types is somewhat fresh, it’s frustratingly underdeveloped. Adding to the overall muddled tone is the fact that while the film seems to be preaching an anti-violence, and by extension anti-firearms message, it’s clearly an exploitation flick, and one whose whole raison d’être revolves around popcorn brutality. It’s really quite hard at times to tell whether DeMonaco was taking things seriously or not (hopefully the latter), though as a biting piece of gonzo social commentary, the film certainly lacks the edge of say “Robocop” or even “Death Race 2000”.
All this having been said, “The Purge” still has plenty to offer as B-movie entertainment, and DeMonaco does a solid job of serving up some fun action and occasionally nasty thrills. Clocking in at less than an hour and a half, it’s an admirably efficient and fast moving piece of genre film making, and once the sirens go off things rarely let up. Though the set pieces are all pretty familiar stuff, Hawke creeping around the darkened corridors of his house with a shotgun and flashlight before being pounced upon by incompetent goons, the violence is well-handled and effective, with the odd flash of gruesomeness adding a welcome edge.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the film is advertised as being from the producer of “Insidious” and “Sinister”, there are more than a few horror genre motifs floating around, in particular the daft masks worn by the villains, though for the most part this falls flat, and it’s only the most easily-scared who might find themselves getting a few jolts from the usual jump scares. The film would certainly have benefitted from a more down to earth approach, and though its wacky elements undeniably make for some unintentional laughs here and there, it does come across at times as trying a bit too hard to cover both the action and horror bases, quite needlessly.
However, “The Purge” is definitely above average for this kind of thing, and while in the home invasion stakes it’s a dumber, bumbling cousin of “The Strangers”, the film is at least a bit different and preferable to the kind of found footage and ghost nonsense that make up most genre release of late. Though he sadly doesn’t build on the promise of the potentially crazed central concept, James DeMonaco proves a competent director, and fans should find enough here to keep them watching.
James DeMonaco (director) / James DeMonaco (screenplay)
CAST: Ethan Hawke … James Sandin
Lena Headey … Mary Sandin
Max Burkholder … Charlie Sandin
Adelaide Kane … Zoey Sandin
Edwin Hodge … Bloody Stranger
Rhys Wakefield … Polite Stranger
Tony Oller … Henry