As a franchise, The Purge is steeped in the low-budget exploitation fare of previous generations. The first film was a rote home invasion yarn with a dystopian sci-fi twist thrown in for good measure. A year later, The Purge: Anarchy was a grim, nasty throwback revenge thriller. Produced on the cheap, both were wildly profitable, and two years later we have The Purge: Election Year, which escalates the saga to an absurdist, (il)logical (hopefully) conclusion.
Writer/director/general mastermind James DeMonaco is back in the driver’s seat, and the strain to figure out what to do one more time is palpable. Last time out, Anarchy opened up the world beyond a single white suburban family and touched on the underlying race and class issues that drive this one annual night where all crime, including murder, is legal. Election Year broadens the scope even more, but while the previous film was grounded and gritty, this one soars to bonkers lunatic highs.
Clocking in at 105 minutes, Election Year is easily 20 minutes too long. The set up introduces Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a senator, Presidential candidate, and Purge survivor who watched her entire family slaughtered before her eyes by a P-Funk-playing madman 18 years ago. She’s made it her mission to abolish this night, which, in turn, earns her some powerful enemies among the fascist ruling New Founding Fathers. Frank Grillo is back as Leo Barnes, the protagonist of the last film, who’s now Charlie’s head of security. There’s also a crew that revolves around an inner city deli (Mykelti Williamson, Joseph Julian Soria, and Betty Gabriel), a politically motivated freedom fighter with his own agenda (Edwin Hodge), and the members of the NFF (Raymond J. Barry, Kyle Secor, Christopher James Baker, and David Aaron Baker, who I like to think of as the poor man’s Robert Knepper).
These threads, of course, come together in various ways over the course of one night, but establishing them all takes forever, and Election Year drags right out of the gate. But when things kick in, they kick in weird as shit. DeMonaco takes the affectations from the previous films—creepy masks, hazy slow motion shots, nefarious things happening in the shadows and empty spaces—and not only brings them to the foreground, but feeds them methamphetamines for like a week straight before he unleashes them into his movie.
All of this ratchets up to such an absurd degree that The Purge: Election Year winds up silly rather than sinister. The last film was tactile and street level. This one, however, is completely untethered and unhinged, almost like a psychedelic Warriors as Leo and Charlie fight their way through the streets.
There are evil clowns, bikers and Crips, and a gang of foreign “murder tourists” sport costumes of iconic American historical figures. A group of teenage girls dress like they’re going to slutty prom and patrol the streets in a hybrid covered in Christmas lights, brandishing bedazzled assault rifles, willing to go to psychotic extremes to get a damn candy bar. (All while blasting "Party in the U.S.A.) I don’t know why the group of highly skilled mercenaries hunting Leo and Charlie needs to be white supremacists, but they are. Also, who has the inclination to build a guillotine in an alley? Apparently someone does.
The Purge and The Purge: Anarchy gave us just enough of the world and provided the bare minimum of details to drive the narrative, dropping hints about the larger picture. Election Year takes the opposite approach and drowns us in information. The scene-chewing villains take the time to reveal their plan and motivations are laid bare—I much preferred Leo as a nameless, mysterious badass; as a reluctant hero, not an idealist. Don’t get me wrong, I continue to love Frank Grillo. He may be this generation’s Charles Bronson, or as close to that grizzled, B-movie badass as we’ll ever get again.
With all of this information, with this wider world view, the cracks become painfully apparent. This isn’t the most meticulous crafted movie universe, and the more specifics the film provides, the less authentic the world rings.
Ham-fisted politics weigh the pace and plotting down—if you didn’t already gather this from the title, Election Year wants so, so desperately to be relevant. Class and race have always figured in, but good lord, any attempt at subtlety or nuance (and these weren’t exactly subtle or nuanced movies to begin with) is cast aside in favor of cackling caricatures. Seriously, the New Founding Fathers are like an entire room full of racist Mr. Burns knockoffs.
Though there’s still plenty of murder and mayhem to be found, The Purge: Election Year is relatively tame in the brutality department, at least comparatively. The pervasive sexualized violence of the predecessors has been done away with almost entirely, which makes it much less icky—you can have a movie with female characters in peril without constant rape threats, crazy as that sounds. So hyper-stylized, affected, and overly serious, much of it plays like surreal camp, like over-the-top ridiculousness rather than anything remotely real. But when this almost comical, video game style violence is juxtaposed against raw counterparts, like Leo knife fighting with a Nazi, it presents an awkward tonal mismatch.
The Purge: Election Year is a mixed bag. While the manic craziness and creepy imagery can be entertaining at times, the desperate urge to have a point and the jumbled world building drag the momentum down like an anchor around its neck. This installment leaves the distinct impression that the franchise has run its course. A definite final chapter vibe permeates the film, and that’s for the best. [Grade: C]