In the realm of horror, the Purge franchise is fairly unique. Whereas most horror sequels tend to repeat the story that came before, or simply shrink the formula to smaller and more arbitrary details (who needs Laurie Strode when we have her secret daughter?!), the Purge films continually build out into a broader and more expansive scope until you wind up with something like The Purge: Election Year, a slash and blast thriller tailor-made for our current news cycle from Trump Tower to Orlando.
Still, such admirably macro intentions do not prevent the law of diminishing returns from taking hold.
To be sure, Election Year is head and shoulders above the original Purge, which starred Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey as a yuppie couple whose suburban castle finds itself inexplicably stormed when they help a person of color. The second film, however, discovered the most mileage probably available to director James DeMonaco’s kooky premise.
Set in an absurd (yet increasingly probable) near future where all crime is legalized for a single night, 2014’s Purge: Anarchy had better marksmanship in its aim by zeroing in on the disparate lives of several low-income families trying to survive the madness—plus Frank Grillo, a charismatic action presence that DeMonaco makes far better use of than anybody over at Marvel.
He’s back in Election Year where everything gets political, at least more so than usual. But lest you think this is getting too pedantic for its genre, understand that this film’s world is a broadly cartoonish political landscape where leaders of parties openly demean women and use the four-letter vocabulary of a third grader who just discovered he could curse. Thus it in no way reflects our…. (Looks over at the latest Donald Trump tweet). Oh, goddamit.
In any event, it’s election year in the film, and the political party of the New Founding Fathers, who created the Purge 25 years ago, are being surprisingly democratic by still allowing actual votes. Yet after decades of dominance, they are on the verge of losing power since a young, charismatic, and blonde senator, Elizabeth Mitchell’s bespectacled Charlie Ronan, is running on a zero tolerance policy for purging. If she gets elected, the Purge will be a thing of the past.
Determined to not let this liberal wet blanket take away his constitutional right to shoot people, her evil, scripture-quoting, and ordained presidential opponent—think more Ted Cruz than Donald Trump—hires some good ol’ boys wearing Confederate flags on their armor to bring her to his cathedral on Purge Night. Along with his moneyed supporters, he’ll literally show her how to stop a bleeding heart.
Enter Grillo, back as the Sergeant and now head of the senator’s security detail, which is par for the course. In addition to providing the prerequisite amount of flirting for this kind of movie, he is also the only badge who doesn’t betray her when crime is legal. Suddenly, on the run and with little hope, the politician and the bodyguard find themselves teaming with a small business owner of a bodega (Mykelti Williamson), who is cynical about politics, as well as his protégé, Joseph Julian Soria’s idealistic Mexican immigrant who loves America, plus a triage medic (Betty Gabriel).
Together, they’ll get the senator through Purge Night, and might even give a vote of no confidence to a few of her rival party’s leaders along the way.
Obviously, there are plenty of political overtones to The Purge: Election Year that are about as subtle as an AR-15 rifle. But where it mostly succeeds is in the little bits of world-building it adds to this universe, making it all the more fun. For example, apparently “Murder Tourism” has become a booming trade in this alternate universe with folks flying in from all over the world to partake in the experience of killing complete strangers. As one South African visitor says, he wants to live like Americans do by participating in indiscriminate mass-killing.
Also, the idea that this has become an extremely violent Halloween for adults is explored more creatively with the use of guillotines, ghostly sheets draped over corpses as they hang from front yards’ trees, and, most memorably, in the visage of a group of teenage school girls cranking it to Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” while rocking gemstone’d AK-47s in cars drowned with Christmas tree lights.
It’s absurd, it’s knowingly grotesque, and it’s kind of fun. It’s also primarily in the background. In the foreground is the aforementioned story of a senator trying to survive Purge Night. And while the ambition is welcomed after exploring the rich in the first movie and the poor in the second, visiting the elite class in D.C. and how this policy was birthed falls mostly flat. Again, the politicians speak with all the nuance of Captain Planet fiends, and it is in service of primarily repeating the beats of the last film to lesser success as Sergeant escorts a good person through an all-American take on Dante’s Inferno.
Also, the budget and/or time restrictions are more visibly present since DeMonaco’s extreme close-ups and garish framing that made the first Purge headache-inducing return here. When characters switch from gunplay to knives, the cinematography resembles found footage from a sailboat after it’s been capsized in a storm. Also, while Grillo and Mitchell are quite appealing, and the film’s intentionally multicultural cast is appreciated, eventually The Purge franchise’s desire to have its bullet-filled cake and eat it too catches up with it. Again, this is a film openly criticizing gun laws in this country, yet still glorifies the power of semi-automatic fire in every other set-piece as the bad guys drop like flies.
There is potential after Election Year for another sequel, but maybe it’s time this current trilogy takes its own advice and lowers the firearm.