There wasn’t much subtlety in the political messaging of the first two Purge movies. There isn’t a hint of it in the third installment “The Purge: Election Year”. In fact this film is so laughably direct from the start that it’s tough to take any of its characters or dramatic moments seriously.
I’ll admit, I do consider the Purge movies guilty pleasures while also fully admitting their mediocrity. Yes, the concept is preposterous, but each of the first two films did interesting things with it before flying off the rails in their own way. “Election Year” never fully gets on the rails. It does tap into some of the things the other films did right, but it never completely gets its footing.
Writer and director James DeMonaco returns and gives us his most heavy-handed critique of everything he dislikes about America. Leaving nothing to the imagination, DeMonaco vilifies every right-leaning persuasion, baits every like-minded group, and beats his class warfare drum at deafening levels. Yet among his smothering lecturing is a fairly interesting story that desperately needed more room to breathe.
In the not to distant future America is preparing for the 23rd annual Purge. For those not familiar, the Purge is one designated night of the year where all crime is legal including murder. Its stated purpose is to lower the crime rate, but Purge detractors believe it is meant to target low-income and minority citizens. With elections on the horizon, Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) has pledged to end the barbaric Purge if she is voted in.
The establishment isn’t happy with the outspoken Senator. The New Founding Fathers of America party (a group of evil suit and tie wearing white guys) have control of the government and decide to use the Purge to kill their political threat. Against the wishes of her head of security Leo Barnes (a returning Frank Grillo), Roan determines to stay in her unsecured Washington DC home on Purge night. That proves to be a bad idea and soon Leo and Roan are on the streets running for their lives.
At the same time we get the story of an inner city deli owner named Joe (Mykelti Williamson), his helper Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), and a tough as nails EMT named Laney (Betty Gabriel). In a clever bit of writing their story intersects with Leo and Roan and the two groups are forced to depend on each other to survive against purgers and the FFA’s white supremacist hit squad (conveniently sporting swastika, white power, and confederate flag patches to keep us from missing the point).
While advertised as a horror movie it really isn’t. The horror is confined to a handful of cheap jump scares and the lightly creepy masks worn by some of the purgers. This is an action thriller with a lot of bullets and blood. In fact DeMonaco sometimes undercuts his message when his gunplay and violence goes beyond satire.
The cast definitely gives it their all and they often keep the film afloat. That’s no easy job. They are frequently tasked with delivering some of silliest, most on-the-nose lines you will hear. Grillo’s tough, businesslike approach to literally everything is a lot of fun, and Mitchell is earnest and authentic. A few other characters tend to be likable but flimsy and you know exactly how their stories will play out. They need and deserve more thought.
And once again that brings me back to the writing. Whether DeMonaco is visualizing a reflection of our current condition or providing a cautionary tale, his dependency on his high-minded message ultimately drowns out the drama. It could even be said he is sometimes careless, irresponsible, and borderline militant in his exploitation. I’m not delusional. I know America is a nation with problems and I don’t mind movies that address them. In fact I often love films that intelligently challenge society within the framework of a good story. DeMonaco’s cynicism isn’t implied. It isn’t subtle. It isn’t cleverly implemented. It’s just there smothering out everything else the film tries to do.
VERDICT – 2 STARS