Join ScreenCritics Adam as he explores the latest in the controversial ‘Purge’ series of movies. Is it a step up from what came before?
The US Presidential Election, it’s terrible am I right? It’s bad enough when one candidate is a dullard who has been involved in numerous scandals, but then the other candidate is a nutter who believes that having a Twitter meltdown about a former Miss Universe winner at 3am is actually an example as to why he should be president rather than not. It’s a miserable affair which is starting to make a guy who doesn’t know what Aleppo is an appealing one. So let’s get behind a candidate that aims to stop a night where killing is legal in The Purge: Election Year.
The Purge, a day where all crime is legal, has now been running for many years but people are finally starting to turn on it and are rallying around independent candidate for president Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell, Frequency) who is planning to end it should she be elected. However the ruling party the NFFA are anxious about her rising polls and plan to kill her in what could be the last ever purge.
The nice thing about this film is that it actually feels that the creator of the series and the director James DeMonaco (Little New York) have actually been planning for it for a while. We had hints as to the nature of politics in the first one and where people started to realise the Purge might be a bad thing, as if it wasn’t obvious, and we then started to see the roots of a rebellion in Anarchy. And there’s also a nice throughline from that film with Frank Grillo’s (Captain America: Civil War) character returning as Senator Roan’s head of security. A lot of the times horror sequels are just repeats of the first one because there was never a plan for a sequel, so its nice to see one where the story continues to evolve throughout each film.
However while the story feels fresh and adds a new level of intrigue to thing, the concepts within the film are starting to show maybe DeMonaco is running out of ideas. You see the first Purge film was essentially a base under siege film with those crazed nutters trying to break into Ethan Hawke’s house and then Anarchy was a survival film where a group of characters tried to not get killed when out and about on the night of the Purge. This does a bit of both, with Senator Roan’s house being attacked towards the start of the film and then them being forced out onto the streets of Washington DC as they aim to escape the clutches of the NFFA’s men. And both feel a bit done, a bit tired, as if there aren’t many more ideas that can be done with this idea.
One new thing this film does is give us an extended look at the people who established the Purge and this exposes the huge problem with this franchise. This film thinks itself as cutting edge satire and often serves as an over-serious warning as if this could actually happen, which is bad enough, but then that contrasts with the sort of performance being done by some of its actors. The NFFA presidential candidate Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor, Homicide: Life on the Street) is played as an over-the-top villain which makes you wonder how anyone could have ever voted for these people. Oh wait, Donald Trump exists. Fair enough DeMonaco, you win this round.
And that is what this film really struggles with, managing the contrast of tones within it. There’s a subplot in this film where a shopkeeper Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williams, Con Air), a dangerously stereotyped character, catches a schoolgirl (Brittany Mirabile, First Feature Film) stealing some candy from her. As foreshadowed, she comes back in a stupid costume to kill him and destroy the shop. But the amount of times she mentions that candy and was obviously angered by this sleight makes it not just verge on the ridiculous, but topple over that line and make parts of the film laughable. Then this set piece ends in the most stupid way it can do, and expects us to get back down to the seriousness of the plot and this election, without anyone even noticing how daft this all was. Tone changes like this are very distracting and its hard to get back into the film when you’ve witnessed something so utterly weird.
There’s also a mash of genres which continues what was started in Anarchy with DeMonaco aiming to mesh horror and action together. This does work at times, with an especially effective scene with some murder tourists, a good idea that is not developed nearly as much as it should be, attacking Senator Roan just after she escapes her home. However it is forgotten as the film goes on and by the end we get the concluding scene it has turned into a generic, if functional, action film. We also get the same moral dilemma that ended the first film, which feels a bit repetitive.
I can’t really be too hard on The Purge: Election Year as it feels like the people behind it are genuinely creative and are trying to make an entertaining film that has some sort of message. And compared to many third films in a horror franchise, its a gem. But while there are some good moments and decent performances, it struggles to hand two tones with one half the film trying to be an exploitation flick while the other wants to be a dark serious film with a message. It is worth a watch if you spot it on TV, but not much more than that.