…or The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Senator Charlie Roan.
The broad premise of the Purge franchise is a simple one. Set in a dystopian near-future, political overlords The New Founding Fathers react to an economic slump and societal discord by introducing The Purge, an annual event where ordinary people can vent their mounting anxieties during a 12 hour period where all crime – including murder, we are constantly reminded – is legal. The eponymous first film was a semi-successful home-invasion thriller, where one affluent family became the target of a group of masked ‘Purgers’, while follow up The Purge: Anarchy did what fans of the original wanted and followed the action out into the streets. While the premise works when functioning as stylish, brash and largely brainless action-horror, third entry The Purge: Election Year attempts to fuse the second film’s grand, visceral ambitions with an element of socio-political commentary. Unfortunately, its failure to commit to this beyond a surface level leaves us with a film whose impressive set-pieces are drained of their impact by what feels like a superficial attempt to intellectualise.
The year is 2040, and after witnessing her entire family being executed on the first Purge night eighteen years previously, Senator and presidential candidate Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) is leading an insurgent campaign against The New Founding Fathers, with a key promise being the abolition of The Purge once and for all. Needless to say, the NFFA won’t stand for this, and in a frankly ridiculously transparent attempt to create an opportunity to “rid themselves” of Roan and her outlandish views, a law protecting high ranking government officials on Purge night is revoked days before the event commences, under the pretense of leveling the playing field between rich and poor. As the tradition gets underway, a saboteur in her security team puts her in grave danger, and what follows is her attempts to survive the twelve hours, aided by head of security Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo, reprising his role from the second film).
The stakes in The Purge: Election Year would feel a little higher if it wasn’t for the fact that the film spends much of its runtime making the case that Roan would not only make a disastrous president, but is also potentially a total idiot. Presumably the first presidential candidate in history not to know that Florida is a must-win state in American elections, our first introduction to her lets us know that her opinions are unpopular with the establishment, and despite being a plainly obvious assassination target for the kind of socio-political extremist that lurks at every turn in this universe, she insists on exiting debates and rallies by walking through the crowd, much to the chagrin of her evidently long-suffering security detail. Presented as the candidate of the working class, she refuses to hole up in a safe house for the night, for fear of losing the common touch. She might not be giving her base of followers a great deal of credit if she thinks that taking shelter in her own home under the protection of an enormous, elaborate security force – complete with weapons, riot gear and security cameras – will give off the “she’s just like us” vibe she seems to aspire to.
That’s not to say, of course, that there isn’t fun to be had once the chaos really kicks off. Much like it’s predecessor, The Purge: Election Year is full of impressively stylish iconography, be it deranged Purgers roaming the streets wearing George Washington masks, streets guarded with giant swinging pendulum blades, attacks by gun-operated drones or back-alley guillotine executions. Furthermore, having established himself as an entertaining and eminently watchable badass in The Purge: Anarchy, watching Frank Grillo dispense with enemies in creatively brutal fashion is always a satisfying distraction. The real problem is what it’s distracting from. The film’s B-story centres around Joe (Mykelti Williamson). He’s a blandly one-dimensional embodiment of The American Dream, owning his own store and reminding us in anguished tones that it’s “all he’s got”. Portrayed as humble and honest in the most heavy-handed of fashions, Williamson does an admirable job of bringing gravitas to a role that gives him little room to maneouvre, even when dispensing nonsensically folksy exclamations like “goodnight blue cheese”.
The two plots intertwine when Roan ends up taking shelter in Joe’s store during the night, precisely when the building comes under siege from a group of girls he had previously apprehended for stealing from him. Entering in a car covered in fairy lights and clutching diamond-encrusted guns, they’re uncomfortably over-sexualised for characters who are clearly established as being in high-school, and as Joe and friends gear up to protect themselves from the attack, Roan’s extremely literal interpretation of “risking her life” for the cause apparently extends to recklessly grabbing a rifle and firing at attackers. Her proclamation that “the soul of the country is at risk” suggests that it’s all on her, but given that the election race the film is set against is depicted as being extremely close run, it seems as though she would be better off alive, or at least that should something happen to her, there would be no shortage of people to take up the mantle. Gunning down her dissenters like a business-casual Rambo makes for entertaining viewing, but given her own ideology and her opinions on martyrdom (she at one point worries that killing the opposition candidate would clinch a landslide win on this basis), it seems like her two most obvious courses of action are to sacrifice herself for the cause or stay inside.
The Purge: Election Year brings with it all the overblown action of its predecessor, and is perfectly enjoyable on that level. However, its attempts at cutting deeper with its commentary simply aren’t well enough considered to work, and as a result the film doesn’t feel as much fun as it should, and isn’t smart enough to exist in the strange purgatory it carves for itself either. Awash with politicians who don’t know the most base-level facts about American election politics and “experts” who make frequent, egregious tactical blunders (most hilariously when the New Founding Fathers hold a rally in an unsecured church on Purge night, where its leaders, high-ranking officials and incumbent presidential candidate would all be in the hypothetical blast radius of an explosive), this is superficially amusing but can’t seem to decide how serious it wants to take itself.