The Purge: Election Year (2016)
Rated R for disturbing bloody violence and strong language
Score: 3 out of 5
The Purge: Election Year is probably the best that this franchise has ever been. Miles ahead of the terrible first installment and slightly better than the surprisingly improved second film, The Purge: Anarchy, this film, perfectly timed for an election cycle that seems to have gone completely batshit in its own right, is an explosive dose of catharsis. It may beat viewers over the head with its populist radicalism, but when it's doing so with a war club that splatters brains left and right to the roar of the crowd, I couldn't really fault it much, especially when its basic message against elitism, racism, aristocracy, inequality, and violence-worship is one that I was already 95% on board with going in. It may get bogged down in plot holes, leaps in logic, and occasional hypocrisy, but there's still a lot to recommend about the third annual Purge Night.
The film starts off twenty-five years after the New Founding Fathers of America (or NFFA) instituted the Purge as a means of rebuilding the economy -- partly as a make-work project, but mainly by killing the poor, as the film spends much of the first act telling and showing us. Those poor folks are growing increasingly restive, recognizing the fact that the Purge is mainly targeted at them, and now, even the fact that all non-NFFA political parties are outlawed hasn't stopped independent senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a woman who may as well be Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, from coming razor-close to winning the next Presidential election on a platform whose first plank is "abolish the Purge". The NFFA recognizes that their power is threatened by Roan's campaign, and so, for this year's Purge, they've removed the restriction barring people from targeting high-ranking government officials -- a move that they've done strictly to have a legal figleaf for assassinating Roan. Her safehouse is raided by neo-Nazi militiamen hired by the NFFA, forcing her to flee into the anarchy-plagued streets of Washington, DC alongside Leo (Frank Grillo), the badass ex-cop returning from the second film to serve as the last surviving member of Roan's security detail. Out there, they cross paths with Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), the owner of a small deli/grocery store whose business has been squeezed over the years by the rising price of Purge insurance, along with his assistant Marcos and his childhood friend, an EMT named Laney who, during the Purge, volunteers to provide medical care to the wounded. Together, they fight to survive the night, protect Roan from getting whacked, and get caught up in a plot by a group of rebels led by one Dante Bishop to assassinate the New Founding Fathers.
Election Year is nothing if not blunt with its message. While the first film (and Anarchy, to a lesser extent) danced around the nature of the NFFA's politics to portray them as generically bipartisan authoritarians, this film very much puts them on the far-right end of the spectrum. Their rhetoric of violence as a purifying mechanism for society takes on fascist overtones that are most pronounced during the climatic scene in the church, where God has seemingly been subsumed into American nationalism. The NRA is explicitly named as a beneficiary of the hype surrounding the Purge. Neo-Nazis are shown to be enthusiastic participants, alongside what appear to be pagan bikers carrying out ritualistic one-on-one fights to the death. The main victims of the Purge are the poor and minorities, those who don't have the resources to defend themselves, and it's all but stated outright that this is the whole intention. The resistance against the NFFA is given strong overtones of current left-wing movements. This is a decidedly, unapologetically political action/horror movie in a way that the first film and even Anarchy often seemed scared to tread, taking all the fears of American left-wingers regarding economic inequality, institutional racism, gun violence, and more and blowing them up to create a world where rich old white dudes are literally conspiring to kill everybody else, and in which our heroes are a broad, multiracial, working-class alliance fighting to take down The Man. Three years ago, and even two, I laughed at the thought of the Purge ever possibly happening in real life, but since then, we've seen that there are practically no limits to how blisteringly insane our political system can get. You can definitely feel the impact of a certain New York real estate mogul's Presidential campaign on this film's production, right down to its tagline of "Keep America Great". It's like James DeMonaco, the creator of this series, decided that if real life was going to violate all laws of common sense, then by golly his violent, satirical exploitation film was gonna turn it up several notches and go straight into pure fantasy, because real life is probably gonna catch up in a few years anyway.
Beyond that, we get further world-building showing off some of the various little things surrounding the Purge. For instance, the question I asked in my review of the first film of whether or not there's "Purge tourism" is answered with a definitive "yes", as a group of Russian tourists in star-spangled Americana costumes show up as minor villains. Halloween stores are now open year-round, selling masks, costumes, and weapons for the Purge. With hospitals shut down for the night, good Samaritan doctors, nurses, and paramedics like Laney bravely venture out and provide medical care and other assistance to those who are wounded, establishing the closest thing that Purge night has to emergency services -- a movement that, as we see, is closely linked to the anti-NFFA resistance. And when the night finally comes, DeMonaco is nothing if not gifted when it comes to showing the chaos in full detail. Most of the Purgers, whether they menace the main characters or are merely seen on the sidelines, are exaggerated, larger-than-life caricatures, such as a bodybuilder ranting about survival of the fittest, a woman who shot her husband only to find herself crushed by guilt, the aforementioned Russians (who came extremely well-prepared) and pagan bikers, and my personal favorite, the Candy Girls, a group of Catholic schoolgirls who got thrown out of Joe's store after he caught them shoplifting, only to return with their friends in "slutty prom queen" outfits wielding buzzsaws while blaring Miley Cyrus' "Party in the USA" out of their Christmas-light-encrusted cars. The closest comparison I have is, oddly enough, a series of zombie video games: the Dead Rising series. Much like these films, Dead Rising is defined by three things: a) knowingly blunt satire of jingoistic, flag-waving Americana, b) twisted psychopaths brimming with personality trying to kill the heroes, and c) a lust for crazy violence and weaponry in its own right. This film brought me the exact same sort of joy I got playing those games, and if they ever make a video game adaptation of The Purge, I'd want the folks behind the Dead Rising games making it.
DeMonaco's handling of action scenes, however, occasionally dips a bit too much into the same well of chaos cinema, especially towards the end of the film. While the shaky-cam definitely enhances the horror side of this flick in the sense of creating situations where it's impossible to tell what's going on and where the bad guys are coming from, that same style is a plague on the action scenes, making them look like little more than a flurry of fists flying, guns going off, and objects being swung. It does a disservice to Frank Grillo's badassery as Leo, who's become the unofficial protagonist of the series in general. He was the standout in an otherwise so-so cast in Anarchy playing what was basically the Punisher, and even with fewer weak links here, he still shines as the best character in the film. Elizabeth Mitchell and Mykelti Williamson are also good as the other two main heroes, Roan and Joe, as are Joseph Julian Sorta and Betty Gabriel as Marcos and Laney and Edwin Hodge as the rebel leader Dante. Overall, even if they could get hammy at times, this was a much better and more interesting ensemble than what was presented in Anarchy, where Grillo was pretty much keeping the film afloat by himself. I cared when characters died, especially because this film actually had the courage to put them in real danger and pull the trigger on some of them.
It's only towards the end of the film where I started to have serious problems with the film, mainly in how it seems to go against its own messages. The third act hinges on Leo and Roan discovering that Dante and his fellow rebels are planning to assassinate the NFFA's candidate for the Presidency, with Roan especially feeling that killing him will not only make them just as bad, it will simply make him a martyr and hand the election to the NFFA's backup candidate on a silver platter. We're clearly supposed to sympathize with them, yet the final shootout at the church, in which we're expected to relish watching high-ranking NFFA leaders getting shot dead (and it was an awesome scene, to be perfectly honest), seems to indicate otherwise. The fact that the NFFA put a hit out on Roan, one that she could easily use as campaign fodder in her own right, also never comes up. Not only is the final outcome of the film fairly predictable, it also starts waffling on a lot of its messages. When Francois Truffaut said that it's impossible to make an anti-war war movie without making war look awesome, he could've just as easily been talking about this movie.
The Bottom Line:
DeMonaco isn't the greatest action director, and the film has a bit more enthusiasm in its message than it knows what to do with, such that, when waffling on whether to give this a 3 or a 4, I erred on the side of caution and gave it a (very high) 3. Still, The Purge: Election Year remains a highly enjoyable action/horror flick, one that proves you don't need blockbuster cash to deliver a massive Fourth of July fireworks display at the multiplex.