by Patrick Bromley
By the third entry in writer/director James DeMonaco's ongoing Purge series, the movies have gotten more interesting if not necessarily better. The Purge: Election Year is an angry swinging sledgehammer of a movie, filled with righteous indignation about class, government, economic inequality, racial injustice -- you name it. It is a relentlessly dark and violent film not in what it actually shows on screen but just in how it feels. As a movie, it's better than the frustrating original entry and a step down from 2014's The Purge: Anarchy (still the series' high water mark), but it makes up for its narrative and technical shortcomings with sheer ambition and outrage.
Picking up some time after the events of Anarchy, Election Year finds the great Frank Grillo reprising his role as Leo Barnes, an anti-Purge mercenary now working as the head of security for Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a presidential candidate running on the platform of abolishing the annual Purge. This does not sit well with the New Founding Fathers, who change the rules of the Purge to remove immunity from government officials so that Senator Roan can be taken out on Purge night. In trying to keep Roan alive, Leo eventually hooks up with Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), a deli owner whose insurance rates were jacked up the day before the Purge, his employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) and Laney, a Purge legend who now spends Purge night driving an armored ambulance.
Don't worry -- he's still awesome, and if Jon Bernthal wasn't such a good choice to take over the role of The Punisher for Netflix, I'd still be screaming about how it's Grillo's gig to lose. But having discovered how well received Grillo was in the last outing, it seems as though DeMonaco has chosen to focus more on making him cool than on giving him a part to play. A lot of the movie gets caught up in being "cool," actually. Where once DeMonaco was able to compose a handful of truly striking images to convey the chaos overtaking the city on Purge night, now he's all too happy to stop the movie cold so that his camera might ogle a stunning bit of art direction or costume design. There's a terrific moment midway through the movie in which a car dressed end to end in Christmas lights pulls up blaring Miley Cyrus' "Party in the USA" and a bunch of female Purgers get out dressed in what can only be described as post-apocalyptic Frederick's of Hollywood. It's a neat image until DeMonaco can't stop lingering on it again and again, piling on slow motion backlit shot after slow motion backlit shot. Eventually, the scene loses its power. We no longer feel in danger because we're just attending a Purge pageant.
These are not issues that get in the way of enjoying the movie. I'm actually a little surprised at some of the critical response I've seen that's reacting to the movie as something not just bad but offensive, suggesting that the film is hypocritical in supporting the violent fascism it decries out the other side of its mouth. This isn't a message movie first and foremost, though. It is an action horror film designed to viscerally entertain us. Just because it is very relevant to what America is experiencing in this actual election cycle (whether it's the rise of Donald Trump, the stranglehold of the NRA...you name it), it is not designed to provide answers. It is merely expressing outrage -- a symptom of our times, not its cure.