Movie Review: “The Purge: Election Year”

Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson, Joseph Julian Soria, Betty Gabriel, Edwin Hodge, Kyle Secor
James DeMonaco

It’s very rare for a movie franchise to get better with each successive installment (especially in the horror genre), but that’s exactly what writer/director James DeMonaco has done with the “Purge” series, refining the concept each time by carrying over the elements that worked best. Though “The Purge: Election Year” inherits many of the same problems from 2014’s “The Purge: Anarchy,” chief among them the absurdity of the Purge itself, it also builds on its strengths to produce another John Carpenter-styled action thriller that’s equal parts cheesy B-movie and pulpy fun. It’s not necessarily a good film, but what “Election Year” lacks in quality it makes up for with a deft understanding of its audience.

Two years after choosing not to murder the man who killed his son in a drunk driving accident, former police sergeant Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) is now working as the head of security for Senator Charlene Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a fast-rising politician who watched her entire family get massacred during Purge Night 18 years earlier. Senator Roan has been gaining ground on the current presidential frontrunner thanks to a campaign built on ending the Purge once and for all, and the NFFA (the New Founding Fathers of America, a.k.a. the rich white guys behind the Purge) wants her gone before the election. After lifting the immunity clause on all government officials for the upcoming Purge, the NFFA plots to eliminate Roan by attacking the senator at her well-guarded home in Washington, D.C. Forced to go on the run when a trusted staff member betrays them, Leo cautiously teams up with some fellow survivors – including corner shop owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson), Mexican immigrant Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) and reformed gangbanger Laney (Betty Gabriel) – in order to protect Roan by any means necessary.

The sociopolitical commentary in the “Purge” films has never been very nuanced, but not even DeMonaco could have predicted that “Election Year” would feel so timely. Though the suggestion that a real Purge could ever happen still seems pretty ridiculous, between the hate-filled antics of Donald Trump and the calculated fear-mongering that led to the recent Brexit vote, the movie feels a lot closer to reality than previously imagined. That probably gives “Election Year” more credit than it deserves, but it’s hard not to draw parallels between the ultra-conservative minister running for president in the film and the ultra-conservative businessman running for president in real life, both of whom invoke violent behavior amongst supporters.

Unfortunately, only one of these characters is fictional, and he’s every bit the over-the-top villain that has become commonplace in the series. That theatricality extends to the freaks running around the city as well, but although “Election Year” ups the ante in the carnage and costume departments, the bad guys just aren’t as memorable. A subplot involving a duo of vicious schoolgirls who want to kill Joe because he caught them stealing candy is incredibly stupid, while the so-called “murder tourists” – foreigners who have traveled to the U.S. on Purge Night to take part in the annual event – are visually striking in their twisted American history getups (the light-up Lady Liberty is the standout) but aren’t given enough time to truly make a mark.

In keeping with the direction of “Anarchy,” there aren’t many traditional horror elements on display save for a handful of jump scares and creepy masks, instead focusing on the horrors of society as a whole. The body count is still high, but many of the deaths come at the hands of the vigilante heroes, which makes for a more compelling experience. Frank Grillo’s silent badass even gets a little help this time around thanks to the decision to pair him with intelligent characters who can actually defend themselves. Though the actor remains the best thing about the franchise, Elizabeth Mitchell and Mykelti Williamson are both good additions to the cast; the former adds dramatic weight as the plucky politician, while the latter helps to lighten the mood with some much-needed humor. “Election Year” is a more well-rounded movie as a result, but despite its capable cast and a few solid action beats, it never quite rises above its grindhouse aspirations.