Director: James DeMonaco
Cast: Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Edwin Hodge, Betty Gabriel, JJ Soria, Mykelti Williamson
Runtime: 1 hr 49 mins
Rating: NC16 (Violence and Coarse Language)
Released By: UIP
Official Website: http://www.thepurgeelectionyear.com
Opening Day: 14 July 2016
Synopsis: It’s been two years since Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) stopped himself from a regrettable act of revenge on Purge Night. Now serving as head of security for Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), his mission is to protect her in a run for president and survive the annual ritual that targets the poor and innocent. But when a betrayal forces them onto the streets of D.C. on the one night when no help is available, they must stay alive until dawn…or both be sacrificed for their sins against the state.
‘The Purge’ could have been sharp social commentary on America’s gun culture that turned out anything but, seeing as how it stayed content to be no more than a B-grade home invasion thriller. Its sequel ‘The Purge: Anarchy’ realized some of its predecessor’s untapped ambition by turning the focus of its allegory on the largely non-white, working-class citizens who were the real victims of the Purge’s cleansing campaign, proving to be more viscerally thrilling by moving the action out into the streets of Los Angeles. It also introduced a sympathetic anti-hero in Frank Grillo’s bereaved father Sergeant Leo Barnes, whose quest for revenge for his dead son became an unexpected journey of coming to terms with his grief. Grillo is also the only actor to reprise his role in this third instalment, set against the backdrop of (surprise, surprise) an upcoming Presidential election where no less than the continuity of the annual Purge is at stake.
Is it coincidence that the United States itself is gearing up for one of its most divisive elections in recent memory at the end of the year, with a string of race- and law-enforcement directed incidents sure to bring the issue of gun control to the forefront of campaigning? Probably not, and neither is the fact that the two candidates running neck-to-neck with each other here are a man and a woman – the former one Minister Edwidge Owens (a freaky Kyle Secor) backed by the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA), which had established the annual Purge to cut the nation’s crime rate by devoting one night a year to rampant, unpunishable murder; and the latter one Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), scarred by the loss of her family 18 years ago during Purge night and therefore determined to abolish the ritual once and for all. Oh, by the way, the NFFA’s campaign slogan happens to be ‘Make America great!’
Within the first few opening minutes, this third ‘Purge’ film already grips your attention by being so politically prescient. The good news is that unlike the first movie, writer-director James DeMonarco (who has written and directed every one of the films in the franchise) sustains the dark political satire in subtle and yet ingenious ways while ensuring that his franchise fans thirsty for the gore and violence promised by the first two instalments are not left disappointed. Keeping the pace fast and urgent, DeMonarco moves quickly to situate us in this latest Purge night, which Senator Roan intends to get through by holing up in her supposedly highly-secured townhouse in Washington D.C. Yet betrayal within her security ranks soon forces her and Leo out on the streets, which combines the mean-streets affair of the previous movie with the tightly confined sensibilities of the very first one.
Thankfully, they receive help from an African-American convenience store owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) and his loyal Mexican immigrant employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), neither their race nor nationality attributes which should escape unnoticed. Joe and Marcos are guarding the store from a couple of marauding teenage crazies, who subsequently call on reformed gang member Laney (Betty Gabriel) when the latter eventually descend on the store with chainsaws and knives. On the run from a couple of professional militants out to kidnap Senator Roan for the annual Purge mass organized by the NFFA, the quintet seek shelter in a triage centre run by anti-Purge leader Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge), whom they find is hatching his own insurrectionist plot against the NFFA. That sets the stage for some moral hand-wringing, which is yet another way in which DeMonarco manages to upstage his last two efforts.
Yet as much as it is timely critique on our existing political climate, there is no shaking off the suspicion that it does exploit the same baser sensibilities for gore and violence to deliver its payload. In other words, this latest chapter isn’t any less bloody or violent than the ones before it, and that is likely a deliberate move in order not to alienate its core audience. As before too, the cast is key, providing emotional heft to characters which are better than stock but still not quite as fleshed out to go beyond their stereotypes. Grillo is reliable as always as the gritty leading man, while Williamson and Gabriel bring conviction to their respective roles. Mitchell though seems miscast, too slight to be convincing as an earnest yet resolute Presidential candidate serious about reform.
But frankly, these imperfections do not diminish the fact that ‘Election Year’ is the best ‘Purge’ yet so far and by far, the one entry to most concretely realizing the potential of its social and political allegory while maintaining its B-grade exploitative thrills for better or for worse. Its greatest ingenuity may indeed be how it indicts false religiosity in a late sequence depicting the NFFA’s annual ‘Purge’ mass, not only with weapons blessed by holy water but priests who extol how the very heinous night of murder was in fact a God-given right. The fact that it doesn’t come across as so absurd is telling of the crazy times in which we already live in, and the insanity in the intertwining of politics and religion that we so desperately need to purge.
(By far the most viscerally provoking ‘Purge’ yet, ‘Election Year’ astutely mines the current social and political climate for ripe and smart allegory)
Review by Gabriel Chong