Third Purge a Politically Astute Meat Grinder
The New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) have a problem. Running against their candidate for President, fundamentalist preacher Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor), who spends Purge Night carving his sins out of the flesh of some random victim in front of his equally bloodthirsty flock in the safety of a church, is populist firebrand Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell). She has made it her mission to eradicate the yearly Purge, put an end to the violence and slaughter, and as election day nears, while it’s going to be close, by all accounts it’s starting to look like the Senator has a real chance to win.
This does not sit well with the NFFA. With this year’s Purge only a few weeks before the actual election, they’ve changed the rules that allow political leaders to be exempt from the carnage and slaughter. Make no mistake, Senator Roan is going to be a target, and it will be up to her trusted head of security Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), a man who almost did the unthinkable two years ago on Purge Night but found redemption instead, to keep her safe. But even they are ill-prepared for what the NFFA has in store for them, and for the next 12 hours they’re going to be playing cat and mouse against the most lethal assortment of cutthroats who’ve ever picked up a weapon to purge with, surviving until morning a gruesome long shot, to say the least.
The Purge: Election Year is the most overtly political entry in the horror/action/thriller series yet. Returning writer/director James DeMonaco is done with being vague, finished with letting satirical elements rumble underneath the surface. Where The Purge was nothing more than an Assault on Precinct 13 clone masquerading as a home invasion thriller, The Purge: Anarchy opened up this world a little more, showcasing how this yearly onslaught of violence and murder was slowly but surely damaging the soul of the entire country at large. Here, the true political motives behind things are made irrefutably concrete, the top one percent holding power using Purge Night as a vehicle to cull the ranks of the homeless, the poor, racial minorities and anyone who is either receiving, or on the verge of becoming eligible for, anything that could be remotely construed as a government handout.
It’s ambitious, especially considering the current political climate, DeMonaco actually calling out institutions like the National Rifle Association for being part of the problem, while also presenting a clueless, racist, egotistical dunderhead as the proud, verbose figurehead of an entire political party. His cast of supporting players includes a Mexican immigrant (Joseph Julian Soria), a weary inner city grocery store owner (a terrific Mykelti Williamson) and a haunted volunteer EMT (Betty Gabriel) with a shady past. Each of them fills a cultural and social niche the filmmaker is looking to comment upon, their eventual meeting up with Senator Roan all part of a greater plan that allows DeMonaco to hammer home his overarching points with the subtly of a sledgehammer.
It’s still an exploitation film, a hyper-violent exercise in mayhem and destruction that is as broad and outlandish as it is cartoonish and over-the-top. Bullets fly, people get chopped up by machetes and lunatics get their comeuppance thanks to the front grill of a fast-moving automobile. There’s a great idea involving the growing cottage industry of “Purge tourism,” while the specter of children being raised in an era where violence as a celebratory once a year act has become the insidiously virulent norm looms over everything like an anvil waiting to fall.
Thing is, DeMonaco doesn’t spend a lot of time fleshing any of that stuff out. As far as the tourism angle goes, it’s an idea that’s introduced only so that he can deliver a macabre gag at just the right moment. With the cycle of violence thing, the treating a day of murder as a national holiday and how that affects children over the course of a quarter century, on that point the filmmaker dwells quite a bit longer. Problem is, the culmination of this particular subplot is just too laughable to take seriously, the unintentionally humorous histrionics too absurd to take with even an ounce of seriousness.
But here is the oddest, and in some ways worst thing to admit: The Purge: Election Year just isn’t as much fun as its predecessors mainly because it finally has the guts to lay all its cards on the table and showcase its intentions with such clarifying conviction. Because DeMonaco plays up the drama, because he takes things so seriously, he skimps on the action, doesn’t go as crazy with the mayhem. If anything, the movie gets a little boring at times, the narrative slowing down for long stretches of exposition and verbal jousting, political discussions that make black and white all of the shades of grey the series had made a mark of trafficking in during the first two films.
Yet this third chapter is still worthy of a look, not the least of which is the fact DeMonaco’s command of the material is confidently self-assured start to finish. Even if some bits don’t work as well as it felt as if they should have, not once did I ever feel like the director wasn’t in complete control of the story. DeMonaco tells things exactly the way he wants to, building things to their conclusion with precision, in the process transforming Senator Roan and Barnes’ trip through Washington D.C. into a de facto Escape from New York remake. It’s creepily hypnotic, building in depth and power until the whole thing explodes in a flurry of grit, gunfire and honest to goodness selfless sacrifice.
The acting is universally solid across the board as far as the principals are concerned, Mitchell and Williamson doing the majority of the emotional heavy lifting, while Grillo once again anchors things with a retro, Kurt Russell-like cool that fits both his character as well as the film itself beautifully. While I can’t say I was as energized by The Purge: Election Year as much as I was the two stories that came before it, I’m still fairly enthused by what it is DeMonaco is doing here, this third chapter in the saga a politically astute meat grinder that’s worthy of a look.
Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)