EVERY MURDERER’S FAVOURITE NIGHT of the year returns in the latest installment of The Purge franchise. This time there are neo-Nazis mercenaries, Crips, “Murder Tourists” and a political plot, but Election Year falls flat.
Former cop Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) is now head of security for Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), an idealistic senator running for the presidency on a Purge-ending campaign platform. The lunatics who introduced The Purge, the New Founding Fathers (NFFA), aren’t thrilled about Roan’s unexpected popularity, and contrive to have her assassinated on Purge night, which also happens to be the night before the election.
Anti-Purge rebel Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge) and his followers, meanwhile, grow in power, and a convenience store owner, Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), is told a day before The Purge by his unscrupulous insurers that his cover has expired, which leads him to decide to guard his shop in person. An old friend, Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel), a paramedic, prepares to drive the streets on Purge night to provide medical aid to the wounded.
The political storyline purports to add depth and complexity to what is otherwise a straightforward action-horror series, but it doesn’t work. The strength of the second film, which was a vast improvement on the first, was to take the setting of the eponymous Purge outside of the home and into the streets, but Election Year‘s grander plot doesn’t build on this in any interesting way. The quasi-messianic figure of Senator Charlie Roan, whose election, it is suggested, will save the beleaguered people of this dystopian United States from the greedy élite who exploit them, is dull and underdeveloped. It is her stupid idea to spend Purge night at her home and not at a safe house in order to secure the support of the common people, and after the inevitable fleeing from her house, she spends most of the rest of the film hiding behind Barnes or smiling sympathetically (fans of the Lost series will recognise Mitchell’s tendency towards doing this) at assorted people she wishes to save. She is supposed to be a strong-willed, independent, capable heroine–she tells Barnes she wants a gun and later demands to go out of the front of the deli with him when he tells her to stay–but she remains, at best, a useless sidekick to Barnes’ action hero lead. Laney and her partner emerge as the real heroines of the story.
Frank Grillo turns in a decent performance as the untrusting, undercut-sporting Barnes, but the script gives him little with which to work. Joe and Laney, both of whom have pasts that are less than blemish-free, are infinitely more interesting characters; so too is the neo-Nazi government muscle, Earl Danzinger (Terry Serpico), who cares for his soldiers and is hinted not to believe entirely in the idea of the Purge himself.
Election Year‘s pseudo-political message and moral posturing aside, there are moments of genuine horror. In a memorable sequence during which Roan and Leo trundle through the city streets in Laney’s ambulance, Roan sees, through the mist, bodies hanging from the branches of a tree like sacrifices, surrounded by cultish devotees dressed all in white. And in a deliciously dark pastiche of hip-hop and pop music video cliché, there is a scene in which teenage purgers in blood-stained prom dresses emerge from cars decorated with fairy lights and playing Miley Cyrus.
There are long and tedious stretches during which the characters do little more than scuttle down dark alleyways wearing fearful expressions, and the political dimension, in which Roan is crafted as a sort of female Bernie Sanders or a Sanders/Clinton composite against her counterpart, the part-Donald Trump, part-Ted Cruz Minister Owens is cloddish and cynical. The film is too slapdash to function as a political statement, but too self-serious just to be a fun, bloody horror flick.
The Purge functions best when it subscribes to the simple and effective formula of survival set in a terrifying, hostile environment populated by masked murderers armed to the teeth with inventive weaponry and machinery. The result is a sort of Mad Max-meets-B-movie-slasher, a ridiculous, highly-theatrical–and highly entertaining–gore-fest. But this latest installment is neither emotionally nor intellectually stimulating and drowns in its own self-importance, the cost of which is less blood-spattered fun. Election Year is adequate fare for fans of the series, but it won’t win over any newcomers.