I remember the first time I realized that not all movies are created equal. I was about 8 years old; and growing up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, there was not much chance for random encounters with low-budget fare, especially when any rental from the local video store was given the thumbs-up or thumbs-down by my parents. To say they were not the adventurous type when it came to their young son’s film education underscores to just what extent I was more likely to see an old copy of PBS Great Performances’ “Oliver!” than, say, L’Avventura.
Nonetheless, that summer my father trucked on down to the video store with me one night, and after twenty minutes or so of the usual browsing of every title in the store, my Dad says “How ‘bout this?” and held up a VHS that depicted (I still remember the cover) a cut-and-paste image of a random guy, sub-machine gun slung under his arm (the type Chuck Norris is double-fisting, for example, on the cover of Invasion U.S.A.), wearing a black t-shirt and army fatigue pants, grimacing uncomfortably towards the camera, as though he’s holding the cameraman at gunpoint and demanding directions to the nearest men’s room. I squinted at the title.
“’Delta Force Commando’?” I said, somewhat skeptically. (To this day, I am proud, knowing as little as I did then, that I still had enough sense to say this in a skeptical tone of voice to my Dad.)
“Yeah!” he enthused, plunking it down on the counter along with the two dollars it would cost to take this treasure home for 24 hours. “Delta Force was a great movie, a really cool idea.” As we walked home, pausing briefly to get ice cream cones from Dairy Queen and pick up an obscene amount of candy from the drugstore (I suspect my father’s summertime penchant for movie rentals had as much to do with the snacks as the films themselves), he explained the storyline and plot of the estimable Mr. Norris’s Delta Force strike team, lending it such vivid detail and gravitas that, by the time we got home, I was essentially vibrating with excitement for what was surely the greatest action adventure tale of all time. In retrospect, perhaps the three Snickers bars I consumed on that walk home were the cause of the vibrating. But no matter: I was primed for cinematic greatness.
Two hours later, several fundamental rules of the movies had imprinted themselves on my young brain:
1. Just because a movie has some words in the title that are the same as another movie you’re familiar with, doesn’t mean they have anything to do with each other. (This is of course a rule that the “mockbuster” industry has taken to the bank, from 1959’s Creature of the Black Lagoon knock-off The Monster of Piedras Blancas all the way up to 2007’s more deceptively titled Transmorphers.) Apparently there was more than one Delta Force in the world, and the one that spawned this particular commando would have been shown out of the building by Chuck Norris’s people.
2. Not all movie budgets are created equal. This was the first time I had seen a film with genuinely shoddy lighting, sound, acting, production, and all the rest - not to mention the first time I’d seen obviously-recycled sets repurposed not ten minutes later. “Wait a minute,” I distinctly remember thinking; “This is just the enemy’s hideout with some posters added to look like a restaurant! What’s going on? Oh my god, IS THIS A TRAP?!?!” Spoiler alert: It was not a trap.
3. Something that sounds really cool in theory is not always cool in execution. (If you’ve already seen The Purge, you know that THIS is the one we’re coming back to in a second.) And lastly, that
4. Delta Force Commando sucked moose doots.
Which brings me to the mediocre film that is the ostensible subject of this essay. Like many, when I first heard the concept for the film, my reaction was “That sounds awesome.” And, like many of my fellow critics, my reaction upon seeing the film was “What a lack of imagination.” The premise reads like gangbusters: a near-future United States in which, for one night a year, all crime is legal. As a result of this yearly “Purge,” crime, unemployment, societal tensions, have all dropped precipitously. On paper, it comes across like the best idea that John Carpenter never got around to filming. In execution, it devolves so quickly into a by-the-numbers home invasion film that you’re left wondering how something so full of potential could be squandered so unimaginatively.
Partially, this is the fault of the film itself, which essentially acts like a bait-and-switch. The universe in which this bloodthirsty ritual takes place is established so promisingly, rife with all the class, race, and corporate tensions you could shake a home security system at, that when it’s all stripped away and you’re left with some angry, faceless baddies trying to break into a wealthy family’s home, it comes as a much more noteworthy disappointment than if the filmmakers had simply gone about filming a simple home invasion film from the get-go. Because stripped of the conceptual framework that belongs to a better movie, it’s a perfectly serviceable little thriller, if relatively uninspired. Everyone delivers respectable performances (Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey, in particular, can pull off this kind of desperate-family shtick in their sleep) and all the fight scenes are competently staged, though with a relative dearth of tension.
And the film so often gestures toward the kind of story it could have been, that it actually frustrated me. It makes ham-fisted nods towards class antagonisms, laying particularly plot-point heavy emphasis on the way that upper-class elites are even more bloodthirsty and petty about divisions within the 1% than to those without. It takes a clumsy sledgehammer to the ways in which government policies use the veneer of “equal-opportunity” as window-dressing to harm the poor and destitute, in so gratuitous a manner that you start to suspect Oliver Stone was a second-unit director. And hey, did you know that rich, privileged bourgeois women and children can be people, too? It’s true!
Look, the point seems to be pretty clear, and sometimes “missed opportunity” is the simplest thing that can be said about a film. And while the level of talent involved in producing this movie means it will likely escape the fate of being some future child’s Delta Force Commando, I can’t help but think that, in the hands of a Romero, a Carpenter, or hell, even a Renny Harlin, this could’ve been something special. The Purge is the Barack Obama of thrillers - so much potential, so much disappointment, but hey, it could be worse.