The Purge: Election Year (2016)
105 min., rated R.
If writer-director James DeMonaco short-sighted his provocative alternate-reality premise—a national holiday has been instituted where crime is legal for 12 hours so the crime rate remains below 1% the rest of the year—2013’s “The Purge” was effective nonetheless as a McMansion-invasion thriller with something on its mind. He opened and expanded the scope of his idea by taking the action to the streets of Downtown Los Angeles, found extra nuances, and ultimately made a superior follow-up out of 2014’s “The Purge: Anarchy.” With third go-around “The Purge: Election Year,” he gets it right again. Here, DeMonaco doesn’t just repeat the same drill but explores the same premise from yet another angle, capitalizing on the current political climate with legitimately scary timeliness. The political leanings have become even more overt and on-the-nose that these “Purge” films are well beyond being satirical or allegorical and might not even be that far-fetched.
Two years after choosing to spare the life of the man who killed his son in a drunk-driving accident on Purge Night, Sergeant Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) returns, now as the head of security for a front runner in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. That would be Senator Charlene Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), driven to abolish the Purge for good after witnessing her family being brutally slaughtered 18 years ago. The New Founding Fathers of America, including right-wing presidential opponent Minister Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor), are still using the holiday to wipe out the poor and minorities to “save” money; opposed to Roan’s anti-Purge campaign platform all the way, they vow to retain their status quo, even if that means killing her. Leading up to the big night on March 21, Roan wants to stay in her own home instead of being taken to a safe house, so Barnes makes sure her brownstone is surrounded. Things don’t go quite as planned, a security turncoat and a pack of white supremacists employed by the NFFA making sure their assassination plan goes off without a hitch. When Barnes and Roan take to the streets of Washington, D.C. with targets on their backs, they team up with struggling deli owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson) and his work family, Mexican immigrant Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) and street-tough Laney (Betty Gabriel), who works every year riding shotgun as a first responder in a triage van. Can these anti-purgers help keep their one and only hope alive from all the murderous nut jobs and crooked politicians?
For the third installment of a dangerous, socially irresponsible series that keeps getting better, “The Purge: Election Year” is easily the best one yet. Still lean and mean as an on-foot ride that almost emulates one of those Halloween Horror Nights walk-through funhouses at Universal Studios, the film assuredly jolts and keeps one on pins and needles once it gets going, while giving even more substance to chew on. By now, writer-director James DeMonaco has organically thought of everything, adding “murder tourism” with foreigners, drones, and a “death collection” pick-up to the mix. The film is all about tension, but it’s actually about more than just Sergeant Barnes kicking ass to keep the senator alive. Once Laney and her triage van driver pick up our other heroes, there is an underground safe haven full of other Purge detractors whose hypocritical intentions go against everything Roan stands for. It's here that the film kicks the moral conundrum up a few interesting notches.
Like “Anarchy” in particular, DeMonaco efficiently develops every character before their lives are placed in danger, giving the viewer relatable and likable people to side with and care deeply about. Once again, Sergeant Leo Barnes is a good guy to have in one’s corner, and Frank Grillo is a strong enough actor that he brings feeling along with intensity to best any stoic avenger found in a run-of-the-mill action flick. Elizabeth Mitchell (TV’s “Revolution”) is earnest and credible as the idealistic Senator Roan whose actions make complete sense given her personal reasons to eliminate the Purge. The two main standouts, though, are Mykelti Williamson and Betty Gabriel. As Joe, who learns the day before Purge Night that he cannot afford his store insurance, Williamson brings a real soul and he’s equipped with some of the funniest lines. Gabriel is exceptionally badass as Laney, who with the help of Joe turned her life around and upholds a reputation of being a legendary purger. Also, on the “purging” side, Brittany Mirabile is over-the-top but so startling and convincingly homicidal as an entitled, shoplifting schoolgirl who later comes back to Joe’s deli demanding her candy bar and his blood.
“The Purge: Election Year” is brimming with depraved, inflammatory imagery, from a group of purgers patriotically dressed as Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam to a woman singing over a burning body on the street to the sight of a guillotine getting some use in an alleyway. In the opening, the brief aural use of T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” and Parliament’s “Give Up the Funk” as two tracks on a sadistic purger’s mix tape are unnerving, too. Even more chillingly inspired is Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.” signaling the arrival of a Christmas light-strewn carload of blood-thirsty party girls in tutus and stockings that would scare away the gals from "Spring Breakers." Nathan Whitehead’s gnarly, discordant synth-heavy score also helps fry the nerves. If this particular “Purge” entry leaves any nits to pick, DeMonaco does hammer home his point more than he needed to with a literal sermon in a cathedral (the macabre communion that follows says it all), and the gun violence becomes a little too celebratory in the third act. Whether one wants it or not, “The Purge: Election Year” might be the enraged political film we need right now.