Film Review: The Purge: Election Year

The third installment in James DeMonaco’s grisly futuristic horror series ratchets up the politics of its class-war narrative, as well as the firepower of the increasingly action-skewed storyline.
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The Purge is the most unlikely blockbuster series of the new millennium. Starting with the first film in 2013, and its 2014 sequel The Purge: Anarchy, writer-director James DeMonaco hit the strange sweet spot that Roger Corman or George Romero could reach when they were firing on all cylinders. Using the glossy-grimy, cheap-to-shoot exploitation formula specialized in by the Blumhouse horror machine (Insidious, et al.), DeMonaco’s futuristic America where the quasi-fascist New Founding Fathers of America has made all crime legal once a year for a 12-hour “Purge” allows for bloody ultraviolence within a strictly defined framework. At the series’ best, it produces a bluntly effective kind of agitprop. At the series’ worst, it’s just an excuse for more mayhem.

Roaring right down the median between the two, guns blazing in all directions, is The Purge: Election Year. It picks up not long after Anarchy slammed to a stop, with that film’s reluctant hero, Leo (Frank Grillo), working security for upstart Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell, tautly moralistic). Having lost her entire family in a Purge home-invasion bloodbath 18 years earlier, Roan has staked her campaign on ending the Purge. This doesn’t sit well with the NFFA, who are tired of her Elizabeth Warren-like denunciations about the Purge victimizing the poor and only enriching “the NRA and insurance companies.” They make their intentions known in a secret gathering that resembles the “Simpsons” episode where Republican Party headquarters appeared as a gothic castle of horrors: Kill the senator on Purge night.

Now, the NFFA doesn’t do things in half-measures. Neither does the film. When Roan’s killers appear, they’re not just any assassins, but a platoon of neo-Nazi mercenaries with swastikas, Confederate flags, and “White Power” patches affixed to their body armor. When Leo and Roan need a place to hide out, it just happens to be a deli whose salty and cynical black owner, Joe (Mykelti Williamson, providing most of the film’s human dimension), and his Mexican worker, Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), become their trusted allies during the night of chaos. Unlike in Anarchy, DeMonaco doesn’t spend too much time depicting the orgy of sanctioned violence engulfing the city. But when he does, it’s memorable. Just witness the scene where the deli is menaced by a band of teenage girls who pile out of cars layered in Christmas lights, blasting Miley Cyrus and waving AK-47s (but not, for some reason, capturing it all on their phones).

By not overly indulging in the amoral possibilities that the Purge provides, The Purge: Election Year is more a firefight-filled chase film with strident political subtext than horror film. The class lines are drawn as starkly as the battleground is in flux. Roan is kept on the run, handed off from one set of allies to the next. Most of her protectors are black or Hispanic, and nearly all of those running her down are white. Roan’s escorts function as an update of a multiethnic squad from an old war film, with Joe and Marcos bonding in almost father-and-son fashion, Betty Gabriel as their stolid nurse who turns out to be pretty handy with a sawed-off shotgun, and Leo the humorless sarge. When they link up with an underground cell of black revolutionaries, descended from the urban guerrillas led by Michael K. Williams in the last film, the film pushes well past the level of allegory.

DeMonaco has said that the current election cycle inspired him. That’s possible. He certainly had the Tea Party in mind, with the NFFA’s rhetoric about resource scarcity. There’s a sour irony as well to the scene where a news crew captures a group of foreigners landing in the States for a bit of murder tourism. But he misses more opportunities than not to plug the film’s anxieties about real-life economic warfare into the current political mood. Instead, the film relies on comfortable old action beats and audience applause lines timed just when another batch of baddies have been dispatched. Not that there’s anything wrong with a zinger after a pleasing eruption of automatic-weapons fire, but DeMonaco just isn’t a deft enough writer or director to make a fully credible action film. He also wastes revolutionary goodwill by turning too many black characters into sacrificial martyrs and slapping on a coda that all too cynically sets up yet another sequel.

As unique a horror-satire as The Purge is, DeMonaco risks stretching it thin. The further he sprawls from the first film’s taut home-invasion scenario, the more he threatens to remind people just how absurd the entire thing is.

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