The sequel “The Purge: Anarchy” takes place in 2023, exactly one year after the action of “The Purge,” a violent thriller that imagined an America so beset by violent crime that the government has instituted an annual holiday from law and order. Over the course of 12 therapeutic hours, from sundown to sunup, “purgers” are allowed — nay, encouraged — to rape, murder and pillage with impunity. It’s good, or so the thinking goes, to evacuate, in one cathartic upchuck, all the hostility that we — or at least some of us — carry around for the rest of the year.
It’s an interesting premise. The assumption that we are really beasts wearing masks of human kindness gave the 2013 film an infusion of fizzy, if somewhat fuzzy-headed, pop psychology. The criminals in the first movie wore Halloween masks, but it’s our own smiling faces, that movie argued, that are false.
The sequel takes the idea even further, positing the ritualized violence as a manifestation of class warfare. In the first movie, it was the wealthy — represented by the family of businessman Ethan Hawke — who were the victims. In “Anarchy,” it’s the have-nots who are being hunted by the haves.
But some of those have-nots are fighting back, including five average citizens caught outside during the Purge. Led by a heavily armed antihero with murky motives (Frank Grillo), a young couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) and a mother and daughter (Carmen Ejogo and Zoë Soul) find themselves trapped between a group of violent psychos on the one hand and a team of black-clad commandos on the other.
Both hunting parties wear masks, disguising not only their identities, but also their true motives, which, as it turns out, have more to do with the maintenance of the economic status quo than with the elimination of unhealthy emotion.
This attempt to tap into lingering rage over the financial crisis and income inequality is understandable, if heavy-handed. As the five fugitives flee from their pursuers, they pass the bloody body of a investment banker, strung up on the facade of his workplace. It’s a “bad joke,” as one of them notes, and he isn’t wrong. Though that grisly sight gag — if that’s the right word for it — elicits a nervous laugh from the audience, its point is clumsily made.
In general, that’s the problem with the whole film, which substitutes an almost cartoonish level of violence for what at least passed for social commentary in the original “Purge.” That movie was bloody and had a high body count, too, but it made its point with metaphorical skewers, not machetes.
There’s an even more fundamental flaw with “Anarchy.” If you’ve seen the trailer, you already know that its villains are the one-percenters, the monied oligarchs who, in the film’s dystopian vision, round up the underclass and slaughter them for sport.
This, of course, makes no economic sense, since killing your own workers is an even stupider business strategy than underpaying them — and a sure-fire path to the poorhouse. The film defies one of the fundamental rules of capitalism: Exploitation of the proletariat may be well and good, but don’t execute them all.
At the same time, “The Purge: Anarchy” obeys a cardinal law of Hollywood: Shoot first and ask questions later.
R. At area theaters. Contains violence and obscenity. 103 minutes.