The scariest aspect of James DeMonaco’s latest depiction of societal cleansing isn’t displayed on-screen. Frankly, The Purge: Election Year becomes more of a cartoonish farce than a dehumanizing horror story. Cut-and-dry action thrills find themselves caught somewhere between Death Race and The Warriors – but there’s still a reality worth fearing.
DeMonaco does his part to highlight the brutal viciousness of legal gunplay (by permitting “controlled” unlawfulness), yet casual viewers who were sitting around me hooted and hollered whenever the film’s “heroes” cleared a room (of foreigners, no less) with smoking guns. There are purposeful close-ups on the weapons themselves – showing how f#*king dangerous these steel reapers are – but roaring crowds only acknowledged the deaths of “bad people,” and cheered patriotically with joy. Like a racehorse wearing blinders to DeMonaco’s real message.
It’s sad, but I must remind you that The Purge: Election Year is pure, dystopian horror – yet from the cheers of eager audiences, you’d think it was a wishful fantasy…
Interpretations aside, DeMonaco’s third Purge survival is arguably his weakest (depending on your tolerance for grindhouse goofiness). What began as a contained, white-knuckled nightmare (Ethan Hawke’s home-invasion defense) has evolved into this brightly lit, diamond-studded excuse for violence, vulgar satire, and Frank Grillo stompin’ faces in. Scares have given way to fight sequences, and questions of morality have become much more heavy-handed in their preachiness. The Purge: Anarchy took such a massive, world-building leap forward – it’s just a bummer to see Election Year stumble backwards ever-so slightly.
As mentioned, Frank Grillo returns as Leo, a reformed almost-purger who now leads security detail for hopeful presidential candidate Charlene ‘Charlie’ Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell). Leo is drawn to Charlie because of her anti-Purge advocacy, which threatens the New Founding Fathers and their way of life. Every year, poverty-stricken purgers eradicate each other while wealthy citizens sit safely behind bolted doors – a “holiday” created to ease economic woes. It’s time for a change, but Charlie’s mission makes her a prime assassination target during this election year’s annual Purge. After her home is compromised, Leo must keep Charlie alive if America has any hope of saving itself from – well – itself.
Moreso than ever, DeMonaco sets his sights on exploitative lawmakers in a year where actual political outrage is reaching a disturbing height. Charlie is a woman of the people (a purge survivor/calls for reasonable action), while her competitor demands history must be honored (purge and purify!). Parallels between Democrats and Republicans are never murky, but DeMonaco assures his point through a host of glaring “nods” that might as well have been neon-lit signs. From a government-funded Neo-Nazi SWAT team (complete with bright red swastika patches) to over-seas participants sarcastically screaming about how great America is, DeMonaco’s anger shines through in each sick, twisted purge night combatant – and it’s damn hard to miss.
Yet there’s an aggression to DeMonaco’s delivery that’s freakishly admirable, as The Purge: Election Night embraces midnight movie pervasion both for better and worse. The horrors Charlie and Leo encounter are out of a Saw-esque spinoff run by Uncle Sam, as decorated guillotines decapitate innocents while preppy-dressed sickos jump for joy. Drones fly around as sky-high surveillance, snobby children kill their parents and demand candy bars, people’s skulls are hollowed-out by shotguns – DeMonaco stylistically embraces the delusional Hell his made-up event promises. Right down to blood-lusting, highly-detailed gangs of high-school sexpots driving around cars covered in Christmas lights – something from a violence-fetishistic Tarantino homage…chainsaws and all. Complete with Miley Cyrus’ “Party In The USA” hilarious blaring while blood-splattered hussies dance around like Sirens of Purge night.
Then again, there’s a strange sense of forced R-rated content, specifically language. Characters spit out words like “c#*t” and “m*[email protected]” with biting rage, peppering curses unnecessarily (and lazily) into conversation. We get it – purging turns people batshit bonkers. Dirty dialogue isn’t needed to depict such an obvious statement (the decapitations do that pretty well), and where DeMonaco’s previous two films are more grounded in dark, sinister warfare, Election Night feels like the cool kid in kindergarten who just learned a new cuss word. He might be speaking louder this time around, but DeMonaco actually says less about America’s future if things don’t change…
Who needs a message when you have Frank Grillo, though? Sadly, Michael K. Williams does not reprise his role as Carmelo (to my disappointment), but Grillo brings enough Stallone-era badassery to save the day. Elizabeth Mitchell wins over voters through passionate candidacy speeches, but exists as a beautifully useless damsel once treachery makes her a moving target (sans one flaming 4×4 swing). This, of course, is where Grillo’s steely bodyguard routine kicks-in just as we’d hope. We’re talking about a highly-trained action stud, who goes toe-to-toe with Terry Serpico’s skinhead squad leader while fists fly and daggers slice. The New Founding Fathers may be a bit too curmudgeon-y as villains, but between Grillo’s action status and Mykelti Williamson’s smart-talking sidekick, there’s nothing to hate about Grillo’s band of impromptu protectors.
Weird racial comments and vague conspiracy notions aside, The Purge: Election Year still carries on a vile tradition with enough heathen-bashing gusto to impress – but there’s a noticeable dip in focus. This is rage-fueled, muscle-flexing personality, but under all those abs and scream-talking is a more hollow, tainted reality that only cares about scaring America straight. Unfortunately, DeMonaco comes off a little more Trump than Hillary, which I hope doesn’t detract from the true terrors unfolding in front of us. You won’t leave feeling purified, but you’ll still have a pretty decent time.
You know, as good a time as watching murderers slay helpless victims in the name of our blessed homeland can be…
The weakest Purge movie is still pretty passable, despite its more cartoonish, action-centric mindset.