Unless one’s been living under a rock for the past several months, global politics are in the middle of a fever pitch. Here in the US, there’s a pretty testy election season going on full of varying opinions and passionate sides being taken. That hostility is reflect in this summer’s The Purge: Election Year from writer/director James DeMonaco, who also made the previous two films in the series The Purge and The Purge: Anarchy. The Purge: Election Year has the right ideas in mind, going so far as to blatantly display C-SPAN footage of the real-life House of Representatives amongst footage that a voice over claims is the result of “The New Founding Fathers of America” trying to push their agendas, albeit with the faces of Paul Ryan and the like blurred out. This shows a lot of gumption, the type of gumption that gives The Purge: Election Year a basic energy worth embracing in a cinematic landscape full of chances untaken. Ostensively, The Purge: Election Year is trying to be a modern sleeker version of a John Carpenter action thriller like Assault on Prescient 13 or Escape from New York. Like those films, this third entry in The Purge franchise tries to play the titular event as a wild west “every man for themselves” style genre setting to comment on modern day anxiety being unleashed. Yet, to a slightly lesser degree than its two predecessors, The Purge: Election Year still suffers from a certain lack of imagination in its execution, lacking the needed edge to make the satire stick.
Let’s be honest: the concept of “The Purge” isn’t a realistic or smart one. How does allowing crime without consequence for 12 hours out of the whole year actually fix the economy? Or bring crime down? Or do much of anything beyond serious property and collateral damage? The answer is that it doesn’t. It’s a metaphor for our society’s slow moral decay and the lengths they’re willing to go as well as an excuse for flashy carnage. There’s a bit more engaging world building in The Purge: Election Year than the other two, with just the right amount of hints at the weird type of barbaric contests that take place. We get hints of a gladiator battle, religious groups encouraging purging and foreigners coming to the US just to purge that gives this universe a large scope than ever before. There’s even somewhat of an improvement character wise, with the clashing natures of presidential candidate Elizabeth Mitchell and her protection Frank Grillo creating tension that isn’t motivated by boneheaded moves like the previous films. They’re actual characters with believable drives and conflicts that seem human.
The Purge: Election Year shows a certain evolution in DeMonaco’s style. Yet, there’s still a clear limit to his imagination. Namely, his inability to escalate the action or evolve some of his side characters beyond their initial archetypes. The action honestly hits a high point by the end of the first act as Betty Gabriel saves the day by blowing away a group of girls. It’s satisfying, but in a way that feels cold. A way that The Purge: Election Year tries to point out on more of a political scale than a character one. That political sting runs out of steam far faster than they’d want, as none of the action following Gabriel’s stand adds a solid amount of kinetic or mad energy needed for this premise. Nor does it reach a satisfying moment of true moral contemplation for our characters, except for one of the lesser freedom fighter characters who doesn’t earn it. By the time we get to Grillo’s big climactic struggle and the finale shoot out, the process becomes rather dull and repetitive even within the 105 minute run time. It doesn’t help that Mykelti Williamson‘s character serves as a comedic relief that clearly shows James DeMonaco’s inability to write racially specific characters. One can appreciate DeMonaco’s attempts to highlight a small business owner who feels like the target of a government blatantly targeting minorities, but it comes off as a bit hypocritical when he has a line as insulting as “there are a bunch of negros coming at us and we’re sitting here like a bucket of chicken.” No, really. This is an actual line of dialogue from The Purge: Election Year.
If anything, The Purge: Election Year showcases just how frustrating James DeMonaco is at delivering on this concept he’s created. Despite how ludicrous it truly is, one could see it being utilized properly and this is the closest we’ve come. Small bits of world building, a few engaging characters to keep things afloat, some effectively eerie imagery. All the pieces are there and the improvement from each installment is obvious. Yet, this entry is just marred enough by underwhelming action and an inability to keep his metaphors consistent with his larger cast to miss the mark. I’d honestly rather see DeMonaco hand over the reigns to a more volatile director with an eye for unhinged madness. Maybe a Neil Marshall or Adam Wingard that know how to escalate their premises to the needed extreme. Instead, we get The Purge: Election Year, a film that only marginally earns its distinct title as the best of the series… which means about as much as being an average height person standing next to Kevin Hart and Danny DeVito. Technically true, but not an accomplishment.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Patriotic Costumes