THE PURGE (James DeMonaco). 85 minutes. Opens Friday (June 7). For venues and times, see listings. Rating: NNN
The Purge promises a fresh premise about a near-future America in which crime has practically been abolished because once a year all laws are ignored for 12 hours of consequence-free murder, mayhem and illicit good times. Unfortunately, once Ethan Hawke's James Sudin is introduced as a millionaire who made his fortune designing security systems to keep the privileged population safe on purge night, it's clear the promised near-apocalyptic night of terror will actually be limited to traditional home invasion thrills with political undertones. It's the classic B-movie switcheroo: promise audiences something big and original, then deliver something small and familiar.
Once the film settles into its home invasion tropes, things get exciting and don't let up until the credits roll. After a first act that simply repeats the premise ad nauseam, things kick off when Sudin's son lets an injured homeless man into their house. The Sudins are quickly surrounded by psychotic purgers who demand that the family return their victim and threaten to kill them all if they don't get him. The action and suspense mount when Hawke and his family transform from civilized rich folks into blood-thirsty killers. Writer/director James DeMonaco may spread the social commentary on a little thick, but at least the blood and suspense are ladled on even thicker.
Performances are strong throughout: Hawke provides a grounding presence in the lead, Lena Headly does the tough-as-nails act she's built a career on, and Rhys Wakefield creepily portrays evil with a smile as the face of the purgers.
In the end, The Purge isn't boring, and that's really all the matters. DeMonaco has a way of mixing action movie shootouts with classically structured suspense sequences that makes for quite a romp.
If the predictable plot only delivers on a fraction of the promise of the premise, that's probably explained by one of the key rules of genre movies: make sure to leave a little something for the sequel.