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Friday, June 7, 2013

Chris's Review: ‘The Purge’ is serviceable, but lightweight and befuddled thriller

The Purge has an interesting concept ripe for satire and/or social commentary. Once a year, during the government sanctioned “Purge,” all crime (including murder) is legal for a 12-hour, overnight period (that means no emergency services either) – so basically like a Hunger Games for criminals and revenge seekers. Thanks to this one terrifying night, where people run around like wannabe assassins and horror movie villains, the year round crime rate and other unsavory aspects of society (like unemployment, etc.) are at all-time lows.

By 2022, The Purge has been in effect for a few years after being put in place by a group calling themselves the “New Founding Fathers” (who are, of course, the only ones completely protected against harm). The Purge is designed to serve as a catharsis for American citizens, giving them a chance to vent all negative emotions and express dark impulses.

But this, like most things, all boils down to money. Wealthy people can afford protection – security devices, gated neighborhoods, and ultimately modifying their homes into fortresses – whereas the poor, especially the sick, weak, and/or homeless, are basically left defenseless and fodder for those so inclined and looking to release some culturally accepted carnage.

With all the exposition out of the way, we meet the Sandins – a well-off family of four who should have nothing to worry about during The Purge – but then there would not be a movie, would there? In fact, the father, James (Ethan Hawke), is a home security salesman (quite the lucrative business in these times, no doubt) coming off of his most profitable year, which essentially makes him akin to a war profiteer. The wife, Mary (Lena Headey), is seemingly well-liked and normal, as are their children – the quasi-rebellious teenage daughter dating the slightly older boy and the quiet, sensitive loner son with a fascination with electronics. So you would think unquestionably safe, right . . .

. . . Nope. For a seemingly normal, suburban, well-to-do family they sure have made quite a few enemies. The most pressing of which arrives midway through the night in the form of a young, well-dressed, well-spoken, well-mannered (except for all the killing), and clearly demented mob of masked revelers, eager to partake in their newly ordained right to “hunt.” When one of their targets, a homeless (though he appears rather agreeably dressed and extremely healthy/fit) war vet (never mentioned explicitly, but he is wearing dog tags) escapes their clutches, they doggedly track him to Sandin's home where he was foolishly granted asylum by the oversensitive young son.

C'mon kid, really?
So now the Sandins, who wholeheartedly support The Purge as long as it never comes close to their doorstep, are faced with a serious moral dilemma. They can harbor the stranger and risk their own lives or release an innocent man into the arms of a bloodthirsty gang (who wear creepy masks for some reason despite the fact that their actions are technically legal). It does not help the situation that they cannot find the mystery man now loose in their house because he, like any sane person, is hiding and aided by the fact that the electricity has been cut by those waiting outside. (Also, why do they not have an impenetrable safe room? Seem like a glaring oversight for a home security expert.)

But somewhere in the midst of the movie, the normally calm and semi-pompous Ethan Hawke turns into a fully capable action star (perhaps a Liam Neeson-like rebirth for the actor in action movies). Eventually, after nearly everyone makes one terrible, life-threatening decision after another, the events erupt into a very violent and bloody extended sequence that leaves many dead. The movie then twists and turns into a largely appropriate and satisfactory finale.

Of course, this movie would have been over in 5 minutes if Liam Neeson had shown up.
The main problem with The Purge (the film itself, not the horribly flawed annual event depicted in the film – that would be a much longer review) is its inability to maintain a singular focus. Does it want to be a thriller or horror? And what underlying commentary is it actually trying to get across? A more inclusive exploration of The Purge (just general logisitcs really, like what do hospitals do?) and the intriguing, but forgotten "New Founding Fathers" would have been more interesting.

Oh yeah, we hadn't thought of that . . .
It also does not help that film is composed of mainly formulaic beats and predictable twists. The premise is extremely promising, but the film timidly tiptoes through it – deciding to rely on proven horror/thriller formula rather than break new ground and providing any real substantial social commentary. Having said all that, The Purge is still better than expected and largely enjoyable, plus at a brisk 86 minutes, the movie never outstays its welcome – it just could have been so much more if it had not taken the easy way out.

This review originally appeared on Chris's official review page (the one he actually gets paid for) on

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