A rough and tough blend of action, horror and sledgehammer dystopian satire, 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy provided just about everything you could want from a sequel: it managed to expand on the intriguing premise of its predecessor, with a genre shift from home invasion thriller to Escape From New York-style violence on US streets.
As dreamed up by writer-director James DeMonaco, the Purge series’ backdrop is both ridiculous and oddly believable: in the near future, America has saved itself from financial oblivion by introducing the Purge, an annual event which sees all laws suspended for a period of 12 hours. This “Halloween for grown-ups” fulfils multiple functions, since it allows American citizens to vent their violent tendencies while at the same time wiping out society’s weakest and poorest – thus saving the state a fortune in housing and health care.
By the events of the second sequel, The Purge: Election Year, the annual slaughter has curdled into a kind of right-wing death cult, while an idealistic politician, Senator Charlie Roan (Lost’s Elizabeth Mitchell) is campaigning to bring the Purge to an end. Keen to shut Roan up, America’s despotic leaders plot an assassination attempt – and you can probably guess which night they choose to stage the attack. Fortunately, Roan has Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo, returning from the first film) as her head of security, and together, the pair fight to survive another 12 hours of bloodletting and madness.
In The Purge: Anarchy, DeMonaco made a virtue out of his low-budget, with his grainy, digital action sequences giving the perfect sense of grit and grubbiness. Election Year employs the same aesthetic, but something seems to have been lost in the intervening years; where Anarchy was pared down and terse, Election Year feels laboured and verbose.
As before, we’re introduced to a number of secondary characters who may or may not make it through the evening’s festivities, including shop proprietor Joe (Mykelti Williamson), who’s worryingly dedicated to protecting his premises from screaming delinquents; Mexican shop assistant Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria); and Laney (Betty Gabriel), a volunteer medic who selflessly drives around helping the injured. That all these characters are flatly-defined and lacking much in the way of story arcs shouldn’t necessarily matter if a film has enough pace and wit, as Anarchy did. But this time, DeMonaco sets aside more space for his heroes and villains to stand around explaining exactly what’s on their minds in the most painfully obvious terms.
Election Year’s tendency to tell rather than show locks the breaks on what should be another relentless hunt through the streets of Washington DC. The individual elements are certainly all there; a pack of Nazi mercenaries are on the heroes’ trail, while the rest of the city descends into a pit of mask-wearing, trap-setting madness.
DeMonaco’s eye for disturbing, isolated visual non-sequiturs remains intact; blood smeared on a famous statue of Abe Lincoln, screaming victims tied to the hood of a car, a wife warming herself against the glow of her burning husband – with sharp, simple images such as these, he brings his nightmare future vividly to life. But at the same time, the jet-black humour which livened up both Anarchy and the original Purge is notably lacking here. There’s nothing as deliciously off-kilter as the sight of a bunch of rich guys hunting the poor while wearing flat caps and country gear, or wealthy old ladies in dresses and pearls braying at yet another execution.
That intense, Verhoeven-like humour and absurdist brio seems to have all-but deserted Election Year, and what remains is a somewhat flat shoot-em-up that actually feels longer than its relatively concise 110 minutes. For every plus, there’s a minus: Frank Grillo remains a superb lead, yet Elizabeth Mitchell seems bored and distracted as his co-star. Some of the masked lunatics are terrifying, yet the movie lacks a decent central villain to drive the story along. One or two action sequences really pop, yet unlike either of the previous two films, we never quite feel as though the protagonists are in much danger.
What Election Year needed was an approach akin to George Miller’s sublime Mad Max: Fury Road – less conversation, and an innate belief that visceral images are enough to carry the day. The Purge remains a magnetic concept, but sadly, Election Year feels like a sequel plodding through its politicised motions.
The Purge: Election Year is out in UK cinemas now.