Review: The Purge: Election Year

Director: James DeMonaco

Stars: Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson, Frank Grillo

Just a couple of short weeks ago – in what has been one of the longest and most excruciating electoral races in memory – human baked-bean in a wig Donald Trump made a remark suggesting that Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton might be wise to fear an assassination attempt. It was just the latest solid in the endless torrent of shit being evacuated via his obnoxious mouth hole, but it goes to show that James DeMonaco – creator/writer/director of The Purge franchise – has more nous than at least the first of his films may have suggested.

Election Year completes the series’ transformation from forgettable Blumhouse horror oddity to agitated political action B-movie. 2014’s scattershot sequel Anarchy can now clearly be seen as the awkward transition piece sat in the middle. DeMonaco has mutated his franchise into something ugly and trashy; a messy, ultra-violent sounding board from which he can throw thought-bombs on our current political climate, occasionally hitting his target, occasionally missing completely.

It’s 18 years since the events of Anarchy and ageless former police officer Leo Sergeant (Frank Grillo) has upgraded to secret service agent, detailed with protecting presidential candidate Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell; this film’s token LOST alumni). If Roan is elected she will dismantle the New Founding Fathers’ annual purge holiday which allows American citizens 12 hours of lawless mayhem every year as a method of venting aggression and weeding out the poor.

Before you know it there’s an attempt on her life as the year’s annual purge gets underway, and Sergeant finds himself in a similar situation as last time; ferrying someone seemingly less capable through urban sprawl that’s busy tearing itself to pieces.

This story intersects with another. Proud deli owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) is determined not to lose his livelihood during the purge after his insurance premiums skyrocket. While staking out his meager business with the aid of longtime employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), Dixon’s night collides with Segreant’s and, with the aid of makeshift paramedic Laney (Betty Gabriel), they attempt to ferry the Senator to safety as mercenary forces give chase.

It’s an indulgently silly set-up, one that feels crowbarred together in order to allow DeMonaco to rally through his latest checklist of scenarios that play with the series’ central conceit of a totally lawless evening. Incredulous dialogue, wantonly naff details and charmingly brainless coincidences suggest Election Year is couldn’t-give-a-toss sloppy, yet their arrangement suggests that actually they’re anything but. DeMonaco seems to be intentionally channeling the kind of high-concept trashy action movies that poured out of America in the 80’s, nailing the aesthetic gloriously. This is his Hobo With A Shotgun if you will. It’s appeal will therefore be decidedly niche, and it’s likely Election Year will be thought of as the least successful of the Purge films thus far, but I’d openly argue it is in fact the strongest.

Beneath the significant wedge of cheese that DeMonaco wafts under the audience’s nose is a film which is eager to say something revelant about contemporary American society, in which black lives matter less than white ones and in which the haves smother the voices of the have-nots. DeMonaco’s approach is grab-bag at times as he leans from one comment to another, but that he tries at all is remarkably refreshing in a mainstream popcorn guzzler, and it ignites a spark under Election Year which gives it quite a jolt. The film takes a scathing swipe at politicians, depicting a nightmare future of Trump-esque zealots congratulating themselves on their self-manifested orgy of violence.

Chiefly DeMonaco suggests that our best weapon against reactionary thuggery is compassion and restraint. Laney puts her life on the line every purge night playing paramedic. When we finally visit the make-shift triage centre – which doubles as a Black Panthers-esque base of operations – it feels as though Election Year reaches it’s heart. Caring for the poor and the wounded becomes a political act in itself; more than that, a revolutionary one. This idea powers the film through a gun-heavy final act in which our heroes’ best chance of success is through mercy.

The waters are perpetually muddied however. For all it’s anti-violence rhetoric, Election Year near strobes with muzzle flashes in an overlong crescendo. This suits the gutter aesthetic just fine, but rather compromises the high ground. It also becomes a little weary. The first two-thirds offer ramshackle, guilty-pleasure viewing of the highest order, but fatigue sets in two or three scenes before DeMonaco settles on which will be his grand finale.

Moreso than it’s predecessors, Election Year seems happy – even proud – to seem like a bad movie. It definitely teeters toward the knowing post-grindhouse set. What sets it apart somewhat is how, through its loopy sci-fi conceit, it actually feels topical, as opposed to purely subservient to nostalgia.  That’s a pretty smart thing to achieve, especially when playing dumb the whole time.

I could be giving DeMonaco more credit than he deserves, of course. Election Year could simply be a dashed-out orgy of violence and John Carpenter reverence (at different times it calls to mind Escape From New York, Assault On Precinct 13 and even They Live), but even if that is the case it crashes into some nuggets of gold as it stumbles in the dark. Producer Michael Bay must have been too busy counting potential profits to notice the wonky leftist agenda coursing through this deeply strange movie.

It is far, far from perfect. In celebrating goofy line deliveries, plot conveniences and tacky action beats, Election Year is going to struggle to court respect. But there’s a sense of grizzled camaraderie within the film, within the cast (I can’t remember the last time Williamson seemed to be having so much fun) that translates into a minor messy marvel for those who find trash with heart really quite appealing. I enjoyed Election Year a lot, and if I’m going to revisit any of the films in the series in the future, it’s going to be this one.

Score:  3.5

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