Friday, July 18, 2014
Let's talk about Frank Grillo. For years, Grillo has been toiling at the edges of the screen in many noteworthy movies. In the first movie I remember seeing him in, Warrior, he was That Guy Who Trains the Boxer Brother. So natural was he in the part that I thought this was some MMA fighter making the jump to movies. In The Grey he was That Guy Who Keeps Mouthing Off. And in Captain America: The Winter Soldier he was That Paramilitary Thug Who Betrays the Good Guys. Apparently, Grillo's been acting for years, gradually coming to the foreground. Yeah, he's still kind of That Guy Who _______, but with The Purge: Anarchy Grillo gets his best opportunity yet to show he's up to carrying a major motion picture.
Anarchy is better than its predecessor, The Purge. Its concept of a designated, government-sanctioned time allotted for society to kill, rape, loot or otherwise "release their beast" was clever but, in truth, it probably wasn't even original when Star Trek aired an episode revolving around a so-called "Red Hour." The modest Anarchy is an improvement because it goes beyond the tone-deaf focus of The Purge, an examination of class warfare... as seen through the eyes of a privileged white suburbanite played by Ethan Hawke. Anarchy expands The Purge series' canvas by training its lens at the underclass victims (of varying ethnicity) who haven't the means to properly retaliate and are often even manipulated to eradicate each other, all as America's surging oligarchy watches on for entertainment.
Grillo's anonymous protagonist is just such a prole. He's not the sheltered, upper middle-class naif that Hawke played in the first. Grillo plays a participant in the annual Purge (one with the noblest of motivations, of course), a vigilante not unlike Marvel Comics' antihero, the Punisher. This enigmatic loner is placed in a situation where he is now forced to defend a motley crew of victims caught between factions of a greater guerrilla war between the oligarchs, a counter-revolutionary group headed by the mysterious bereted Carmelo (Michael K. Williams), and random gangbangers collecting weaker citizens to sell them to the upper class. The added levels of complication sometimes seem a little too heavy for such a thin concept to bear but somehow, writer-director James DeMonaco makes it work.
Maybe it's because Anarchy feels less like a home invasion horror film and more like your classic siege film, in the vein of Walter Hill's The Warriors or John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (DeMonaco wrote the remake that also starred Hawke). In those movies, occasional quirks of personality aren't enough to color a cast of ciphers deliberately left blank so that the audience can project their own thoughts and fears onto them. The terror comes from identifying with these protagonists, in this timely case the underprivileged, attempting to outrun and survive their attackers while a metaphorical clock ticks down to end time.
What makes Grillo so attractive in Anarchy is how his performance runs counter to this set-up. Every shot, every decision made in the story is meant to distance the viewer from him, creating the kind of tension we always associate with iconic American antiheroes played by the likes of Bronson, Eastwood, McQueen, etc. Grillo makes the most of it, cultivating a gruff, stoic, but ultimately sympathetic aura. It's a turn that confirms Grillo is ready for the big time. If for no other reason, The Purge: Anarchy is worth seeing for Grillo, who at middle age is just entering his prime.