Even more than its two predecessors, The Purge: Election Year is the kind of big, bad, bombastic genre movie America deserves in 2016.
Jettisoning the home invasion horror of the first film — which takes place in a near future where the government not only allows but encourages murder and violence one night a year — Election Year is a full-on action film, like a stupider Escape From New York. It approaches our cultural discourse with the same skull-bludgeoning relentlessness that its depraved inhabitants approach their perennial civic duty.
Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo, doing that gritty Frank Grillo thing), the anti-hero of the last Purge movie, has become the head of security for Charlene Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell, delivering lousy lines with straight-faced sincerity), an idealistic, progressive independent and presidential candidate. Roan lost her entire family to the purge as a child, and vows to end the night if elected. She fights for the under-privileged and disenfranchised. The government, which comprises Christian zealots, one-percenters, and white supremacists, doesn't want Roan to end the Purge. They try to kill her, but their heavily armed private military is no match for Leo and a coterie of Roan voters.
Written and directed by James DeMonaco, who has helmed all three Purge movies (and who wrote the notoriously bad Robin Williams vehicle Jack), Election Year is more of the same but more, which only adds to the feeling that the series is an epochal product of a culture that resists change. The movie attempts to incorporate every major political movement and moment from the last two years in its blood-steeped 90 minutes, from drone strikes to Black Lives Matter and the imperialism of the one percent. Most of the main characters are people of color, which is commendable: Joe, a black deli owner (Forrest Gump's Mykelti Williamson), and Marcos, his Mexican immigrant partner (Joseph Julian Soria), are struggling with engorged insurance rates from crooked companies, while Laney (Betty Gabriel), a certifiable badass, drives around in an armored van trying to help Purge victims. At one point, Joe says, "You don't sneak up on a black man on Purge night," and you almost wish the movie was just a modern blaxploitation flick instead.
Election Year occasionally embraces its own absurdity, but it doesn't go far enough. It's obvious, yet not obvious enough to be satirical, and feels oddly tame for a movie about a government-sanctioned mass murder night. It works best during its fever dream scenes of gratuitous violence, which is funny, since they undermine whatever political point DeMonaco is trying to make. DeMonaco doesn't direct action well at all, and his idea of "scary" is a stranger jumping nonsensically into the frame and emitting a loud noise. But he certainly relishes fugacious moments of zany camp crassness. The highlight of the movie, which has no deeper merit than pure gaudy derangement, concerns a gaggle of foul-mouthed, homicidal rich teenage girls wrapped in lascivious garb and Christmas tree lights dancing in joyous slow-motion before before mowed down by a van. It doesn't extrapolate or expound upon the film's themes, but it's funny.
The Purge: Election Year is the cinematic equivalent of hashtag activism. It has a lot to say, but none of it is particularly profound, and its points are lost amidst all the utterly unrepentant violence. Still, it's cool that the movie tries, however lamely, to go for the American jugular, even if it takes broad, sloppy swipes, and doesn't actually come anywhere near the jugular. Maybe it clips a cheek, or nips a bit of the ear. We'll live.