THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR Review: Damn, Or Just Shoot, The Man

This movie is pissed off.

The Purge series has had the strange misfortune of owning one of the better movie premises in recent memory only to leave it largely unexamined or satisfyingly mined for potential. This is especially true of the first film, where Purge Night (an annual 12 hours during which all crime is legal) pretty much happens outside of the film’s view. If it were a look at The Mona Lisa, it would be a blurry closeup of her mouth.

The second film, The Purge: Anarchy, did a better job of showing us what a real Purge Night looks like while also introducing franchise hero Frank Grillo. More action than horror, The Purge: Anarchy zips along furiously, plunging us headfirst into a fairly simple story of survival on a night when normal, everyday people get to go insane. To keep with my idea from before, this would be a nice, well-framed look at the entire Mona Lisa.

The Purge: Election Year, takes yet another step back. Now we see not only the street view of this night, but also the high-ranking officials pulling its strings. Instead of just slamming us with physical horror, we learn more about the unfair economic strain the Purge puts on those with less. We see people pick their targets before the Purge begins. We see people react to the Purge in a variety of ways and involve themselves beyond mere survival or murder. We see the Mona Lisa just fine, but we also see the details of the painting’s exhibition and can also check out those who wish to see it.

Granted, the film doesn’t offer a Ken Burns-level examination of the Purge’s minutia. It doesn’t answer everyone smartass questions about what happens if you use the night to cheat on your taxes. But it does offer a sense of a larger world the other two didn’t offer. Purge insurance rates go up dramatically 24 hours before the night begins. Foreigners come to America just to participate. Wives shoot their husbands then immediately regret it. Rebels rally to use the opportunity to assassinate those who put them in economic bondage.

All kinds of Purge things happen in this movie. Some directly relate to the plot, others merely to provide much-appreciated window dressing. It all adds up to the most satisfying utilization of this premise yet.

And there is a plot. After losing her whole family to the Purge, Senator Charlie Roan is now running for POTUS on a platform that would abolish Purge Night forever. She has a serious chance of winning, so those in power rescind a clause that usually makes government officials Purge-exempt so they can assassinate her.

But whoops! They didn’t realize she has Frank Grillo on her side. Grillo, who is so generic he doesn’t even need to be playing the guy from the last Purge movie, gets her to safety during the initial attack and must keep her alive for the rest of the night.

They are helped along the way by a trio of everyday folks - a shopkeeper (Mykelti Williamson) his young Latino buddy (Joseph Julian Soria), and a former Purge legend who now drives an ambulance helping people on Purge Night (Betty Gabriel). The film has been sold on its A-plot, but these three provide the narrative's heart and soul. They are the ones most affected by the night, they are the ones who choose how to deal with it, and they are the only characters to offer the film a sense of both history and humor.

The Purge: Election Year lacks the kind of exemplary action or horror it needs to survive on those merits alone. It’s mostly a lot of bland stabbing/shooting with some occasionally interesting masks, which I suppose is a series trademark. As a pulpy genre exercise, it doesn’t live up to The Purge: Anarchy at all. It doesn’t have that film’s nitty-gritty zip or concentrated story.

But it’s not quite trying to be The Purge: Anarchy, either. Instead, this film wants to say things. It wants to point a finger at how the government marginalizes the American lower class only to later blame them for the problems that arise from that poverty. And it wants to make those responsible pay. Few would disagree - the last twelve months have been pretty fucked up. The Purge: Election Year feels like an answer to much of what has plagued us as a country lately. If Donald Trump were a character, he’d be dead as a doornail.

There’s a satisfaction in that. The film also displays a mildly optimistic streak in its examination of urban community in the face of chaos. That streak ends decisively in the final moments but remains with you nevertheless.

The Purge: Election Year is neither as gory, smart, satirical, or fun as a movie like RoboCop, but that’s definitely a touchstone that popped in my head while watching it. We don’t have as many angry movies as we should given the times. If you have to get it from a B-movie romp starring Frank Grillo, that’s better than not getting it at all.