Review: The series continues to incrementally improve with 'The Purge: Election Year'
It makes sense that James DeMonaco was the screenwriter and a co-producer on the remake of John Carpenter’s breakthrough Assault On Precinct 13. It is clear this time that the model he is chasing is the John Carpenter model, and there is a strong Escape From New York vibe to the best moments in The Purge: Election Year, a film that is far more action/thriller than overt horror.
It feels like DeMonaco has been remaking his own movie with each new chapter of The Purge, trying to refine it into the film he originally wanted to make. I think the first film is a mess, and it’s a case of a budget totally defining what something is instead of the idea being the primary consideration. They created this world with this major cultural event at the center of it, and they made an entire film set inside one family’s house. I understand why, but I don’t care. I don’t review film budgets. I don’t review how successfully something manages to create a return on an investment. I review films, and as a film, The Purge is a sort of overly-familiar home-invasion story, and not a particularly good one. The second film widened the world view just a bit, focusing on the story of Frank Grillo as “Sergeant,” a guy determined to use the annual opportunity of the Purge to right a wrong that was done to his family. And while I think The Purge: Anarchy is better than the first film, I still thought it got a lot wrong, leaning on some cheap set-ups and some obvious moves.
In The Purge: Election Year, it feels like DeMonaco has finally gotten to a place where he can make a real movie about this premise, one that does an admirable job of setting up how the Purge affects a wide range of people. Elizabeth Mitchell stars as Senator Charlie Roan, a woman who is running for President with every intention of putting an end to the Purge if she wins. Several years back, she lived through a Purge night but her family didn’t, with a group of lunatics murdering them in front of her and forcing her to watch. As she gets closer to the actual election, it’s clear she’s got a real shot at winning, and the New Founding Fathers, the shadowy group who originally pushed the Purge into existence, are determined that they’re not going to lose the power they’ve built. They decide they’re going to use the Purge to send a team after the Senator, not realizing that someone else has the same idea, but with them in mind. It’s a much larger film than the others, both in terms of the ideas being explored and the actual geography of the thing, as we get a pretty good look at Washington D.C. in crisis over the course of the 12 hours of the Purge.
The thing that I can’t shake about these movies, though, is that the premise is too clever for its own good. DeMonaco hasn’t really thought through this world. I think he does a better job this time of looking at the economic and political ramifications of the Purge, and Kyle Secor makes a particularly unctuous face for the Founding Fathers, with Raymond Barry showing up to be extra-disgusting in one scene. I think it’s safe to say that if something like this existed, it would be poor people who died in record numbers and the wealthy would remain safe and sound behind secure walls, and the idea that the Purge is created as a form of economic and social warfare, designed to slowly but surely sculpt away all the “unwanted,” is a potent one. But the movie is obviously trying to be social satire, with some very pointed commentary, and it wants to land some punches about the immorality of using murder as a tool. The problem is that a movie like this is always going to build to a climax where someone has to die to resolve the story. Either a good guy or a bad guy is going to be killed, and as soon as that happens, the film becomes less about morality and more about the visceral thrills of killing people onscreen.
Elizabeth Mitchell and Frank Grillo are both appealing leads, but Grillo in particular highlights just how silly it is to even call these films sequels. Yes, his character was at the center of the previous film, but in that movie, he was played as a sort of Man With No Name anti-hero. Here, he’s the head of security for Mitchell’s character, and he makes a very brusque reference to his own history with the Purge as the reason he believes in her as a candidate. You could easily have made this as the first movie and you’d lose absolutely nothing in terms of insight or connection to the characters. This film says everything the first two films tried to say, but better and in a more coherent thematic way. More than either of the first two films, the marketing for this movie is selling something very different than what you’re actually getting. This is not about the random lunatics murdering and causing chaos, and while that’s what every ad and every poster puts front and center, it’s a far more focused and character-driven affair. Mykelti Williamson plays a local deli owner who starts out trying to defend his business, only to get caught up in trying to keep the Senator alive. Edwin Hodge plays Dante Bishop, a radical underground organizer who is working to find his own way to bring the Purge to an end, and he’s easily the most underdeveloped character they introduce. Because so little time is given to setting up who he is, when he suddenly becomes central to the film’s third act, it seems forced and driven more by necessity than anything. If anything, DeMonaco seems too ambitious this time, and because he’s been forced to work so small up until now, he’s not able to really juggle all of the ideas that he tries to establish here. As a result, he fumbles some of his own best instincts.
In the end, I’m not sure I’m ever going to be a fan of the Purge films. I think there is something provocative in there, but I feel like they keep circling those good ideas, never quite landing on one in a way that fully pays it off. For audiences who want mindless mayhem, the films never really tip over into that, and for anyone who wants to see this idea fully explored, you may leave frustrated. At least this time, it feels like the dart is on the dartboard instead of in the wall next to it. Maybe two or three films down the line, DeMonaco will finally make a great one. Until then, I guess The Purge: Election Year will have to do.
The Purge: Election Year is in theaters now.