Regular readers around these parts probably figured it was only a matter of time before I got around to casting my supposedly critical eye on writer/director James DeMonaco’s summer 2016 release The Purge : Election Year given that I had generally good things to say about the first two films in this so-called “evolving franchise,” but seeing as how I never got around to catching it while it was playing in theaters, you fine folks are stuck with a “better late than never” appraisal since I just got it on DVD (a “bare-bones” rental DVD, I hasten to add, so I’m afraid I can’t discuss whatever extras the “real” disc might offer) from Netflix the other day and gave it a watch last night. There’s a better than good chance that many of you reading this have probably already seen it, I suppose, but what the heck — I’ve got a few things to say about it regardless of whether or not you’ve already had a chance to form your own opinion.
First off, let’s be perfectly honest — despite the wrinkle of having this story center on the desperate struggle for survival of anti-Purge presidential candidate Senator Charlie Roan (played by Elizabeth Mitchell), this is pretty much the “taking it to the streets” premise of 2014’s The Purge : Anarchy all over again, but frankly the tight, insular, single-location setting of DeMonaco’s first flick was probably a more successful conceit in terms of exploiting a concept like this to its fullest. I also find it highly absurd that the so-called “New Founding Fathers Of America” would allow an opposition candidate like Senator Roan to rise to prominence in the first place since they seem like an outright fascist outfit, but whatever. We’ll just file that under “Requiring Greater Suspension Of Disbelief Than Most” and move on from there.
Besides, just because they didn’t try to kill her before doesn’t meant they’re not going to give it their level best come Purge Night. Our one-woman resistance force starts out with only her loyal bodyguard, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) for protection, but in fairly short order they’re joined by tough-but-kindly deli owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), his protege who operates a mobile triage unit (or, if you prefer simplicity, an ambulance), Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel), and his principled-but-quiet part-time (I’m assuming, at any rate) employee, Marcos (J.J. Soria). And that’s not all — after a few near-death skirmishes, our ragtag rebels are joined by a decidedly less ragtag, and considerably larger, band of rebels who are determined to do considerably more than help Charlie win the election, they’re out to guarantee her victory by assassinating her NFFA-endorsed opponent.
Cue some pretty heavy moralizing of the “if-we-kill-him-we’re-no-better-than-they-are” variety that grates almost instantly and infects an otherwise enjoyable-if-predictable ultraviolent romp with an unwelcome strain of ineffective and largely redundant earnestness. We already know this whole “Purge thing” is some sick and evil shit, after all, we don’t need to have that viewpoint amplified in stereo.
Are you getting the distinct impression that I was decidedly less impressed with The Purge : Election Year than previous entries in this series? Well, you’re exactly right — most of the principal cast turn in competent (if unmemorable) performances, and DeMonaco hasn’t lost his flair for for visceral, bloody, dystopian action, but it really does feel like this premise has been stretched as far as it can possibly go, if not a bit further. And that’s probably this flick’s most glaring and irredeemable flaw — it’s not especially bad (or good) when taken on its own merits, but it’s what it’s not that’s actually of much more concern than what it is.
Ya see, The Purge : Election Year plays out like nothing so much as a natural conclusion to a trilogy. Not a particularly inspired conclusion, mind you (and the whole thing probably seemed considerably more relevant before the real election validated the absurd in ways no fiction could even dream of), but at least a logical one. Except it’s not. DeMonoaco is already at work on a fourth flick, and that relegates this one from the role of “big finale” to that of “mediocre stopgap measure.” I’ll be the first to admit that it’s blatantly unfair to hold the fact that there’s a future installment coming in this series against the present one, but them’s the breaks, I guess : if this had been the end of the road, it would have been essential viewing for hard-core Purge fans, at least, if no one else, but as things stand, shit — it turns out it’s one that even they can skip.