Since we’re smack dab in the middle of a very surreal and polarizing race for the Oval Office, there’s a temptation to look to The Purge: Election Year for timely metaphorical resonance. You’ll find it. It’s so simplistic and heavy-handed that it’s impossible to miss, but to be honest, it’s the least interesting thing about the film. If, on the other hand, it’s sleazy kicks you’re after, you’ll be in exploitation heaven. Because writer-director James DeMonaco’s third chapter in the thrill-kill vigilante franchise is the best and pulpiest Purge yet.
When the first Purge hit theaters in 2013, it became a surprise hit thanks to a gloriously perverse, high-concept premise that had the sort of fiendish simplicity you could have fit on a blood-stained cocktail napkin. If anything, the idea was a lot smarter than the movie that spun off from it. Set in the year 2022, America has rebounded from economic catastrophe, unemployment is at an all-time low, and crime is non-existent. Why? Because one night every year, the government sanctions a no-questions-asked license for ordinary folks to kill, loot, and act out their most depraved impulses. In the first film, Ethan Hawke was in the eye of the Purge Night storm trying to protect his well-off family from the masked mob. It was basically a low-stakes siege movie that left most of its best ideas on the table. The follow-up, 2014’s Purge: Anarchy, opened up DeMonaco’s ultraviolent world beyond one family’s bloody fight for survival while introducing a promising cop character played with sinewy, slice-and-dice heroism by Frank Grillo. Quality-wise, however, the sequel was a lateral move.
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In Election Year, DeMonaco’s reach finally matches his grasp. Senator Charlene Roan (Lost’s Elizabeth Mitchell) is a presidential hopeful and champion of the downtrodden who wants to abolish Purge Night. Naturally, the powers that be (i.e. older white men in their one-percent star chamber) are threatened by her soaring grassroots popularity and put a bounty on her head during this year’s Purge. Grillo’s Leo Barnes (thankfully) returns, this time playing her head of security. He’s the sort of no-nonsense badass that if Election Day was made 40 years earlier, his role would have been played by Charles Bronson. Since this is hardly enough to hang a 105-minute B-movie on, the film also introduces a struggling African-American deli owner (Mykelti Williamson, hogging all of the film’s best lines), his loyal delivery man (Joseph Julian Soria), a Black Lives Matter-style revolutionary (Edwin Hodge), a tough-as-nails Good Samaritan (Betty Gabriel), and a deadly posse of Neo-Nazi mercenaries gunning to assassinate the Good Senator on behalf of the nefarious incumbent Lockjaw in Chief (Kyle Secor).
One of the many things that DeMonaco does surprisingly well in Election Year is throwing together all of these characters and making it feel organic to the story. Williamson, Soria, and Gabriel come to the aid of the on-the-run Mitchell and Grillo, helping them run the kill-crazy gauntlet ‘til daybreak. Another thing he excels at is borrowing from other really good genre movies like Clockwork Orange, Soylent Green, The Warriors, Total Recall, and especially John Carpenter’s Escape from New York. (He must have an excellent DVD library at home.) Still, Election Year manages to put a lot of ideas and images on screen that are totally its own. Especially, its hallucinogenic, “Halloween for adults” vision of Purge Night’s murder and mayhem. The film’s violence (and there’s a ton of it, so consider yourself warned) is stunningly art-directed. In one scene, the steps of D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial are lit up with bonfires and littered with dead bodies, while its white columns are graffiti’d with the word P-U-R-G-E scrawled in blood. In another, a rabid mob of female looters sport cutesy masks and are tarted up in skimpy corsets while wielding bedazzled machine guns. It’s like watching Miley Cyrus skipping through Dante’s Inferno.
It’s tempting to watch Election Year and draw knee-jerk parallels between Mitchell’s virtuous senator and Hilary Clinton, and Secor’s righteous right-wing blowhard Minister and Donald Trump. Actually, it’s impossible to read the film any other way. But DeMonaco’s campaign-season partisan allegory doesn’t do the film—or its message— any favors. As political satire, it’s cheap, obvious, and lazy. But as a rousingly tense, Carpenter-esque thriller, Election Year is surprisingly effective. The only shame is that film’s finale paints itself into a narrative corner that will make it tricky to justify another sequel. Too bad, because three films in, the Purge saga has finally hit its sick, sadistic stride. B