The idea at the centre of The Purge series – that all crime, including murder is legal for 12 hours every year – is one so rich with possibilities that each film just ends up being a let-down. The series has set out its stall as a violent one filled with pop horror imagery that is more concerned with the chaos and bloodshed of Purge Night than any of the sociological debates around it. That’s not to say the films aren’t enjoyable; they are generally fine and the latest entry, the politically themed The Purge: Election Year, is the best of the bunch so far, but they could be so much more.
The Purge: Election Year essentially follows the template set by its predecessor, 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy by setting up disparate groups that will inevitably intersect on Purge Night. One of the characters this time around is a recurring one: Leo Barnes, Frank Grillo’s former cop whose Purge-related exploits were the basis of The Purge: Anarchy. He’s now head of security for Presidential hopeful Sen. Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a beloved democrat with a personal connection to the Purge. The basis of her campaign is ending purge night for good, which makes her a target for the nefarious upper-class white guys known as the New Founding Fathers who started this whole purge thing as a means of thinning out the lower classes.
Naturally, a squad of neo-Nazi hitmen are sent after the senator, attacking her home and making light work of her security detail – other than Leo of course. Leo and the senator end up on the run, eventually falling in with deli owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson) and his protégé Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), who need to protect the deli after soaring costs mean they are left with no purge insurance. Joe is also something of a mentor to Laney (Betty Gabriel), a former gang member who drives a triage van on purge night, helping get the injured to an underground hospital. The two groups join forces to get the senator to safety as the film turns into a cat and mouse game around Washington DC with the usual mix of elaborate Hallowe’en masks, unspecified chaos and class warfare.
The economical, racial and political divides of the earlier films in the series were subtler than they are here. It’s clear this film has been written specifically to be released into a tense, often hostile political landscape where these divides have never been more keenly felt and its political allegories are thuddingly obvious. The scrappy uprising consists almost entirely of minorities and, in the case of Marcos, a migrant from Mexico and the ones trying to wipe them out are old white men who sit around in mahogany rooms swilling Scotch and get their kicks by executing poor people in a church. The vitriol directed at Sen. Roan for looking to end the Purge is all too familiar, with the debate around the Purge essentially a sensationalised version of the gun control debate.
For the first time in the series, writer-director James DeMonaco comes down firmly against the Purge and gives us a hero in Sen. Roan who refuses to get involved in any of the bloodshed. It’s an interesting direction for the film to take considering it still revels in the exploitation movie thrills and spills that are the series’ stock-in-trade, lingering on gruesome headshots and delighting in the brutal deaths of any of the film’s villains. The action is largely functional with the standard shaky cam obscuring any choreography and most of it falling into generic shootout territory, though an early scene involving an attack on Sen. Roan’s house is impressive and manages to muster up some tension.
So much like its predecessors, The Purge: Election Year is intermittently engaging with some intriguing ideas at the centre of it. It strangely feels like a series that has taken its premise as far as it can go in the direction DeMonaco chosen to take it, yet still feels like it hasn’t been explored to its fullest potential. It’s unfair to review a film for what it isn’t but wouldn’t a film set after Purge Night be far more interesting? Considering almost everyone in this world turns into a bloodthirsty lunatic on Purge Night, that must have a severe effect on personal relationships with friends, family, co-workers and neighbours, all of whom probably killed someone on Purge Night too. The possibilities are almost endless but, despite this being the strongest in the series, it feels like it’s a franchise that’s ran out of steam.