"The Purge" Series Reaches Peak Pointlessness In "Election Year"

In 2013 “The Purge” served up room temperature home invasion horror, in 2014 “The Purge: Anarchy” tried to kickflip into sleazy exploitation only to end up kissing the concrete, and now, in 2016, “The Purge: Election Year” has materialized to pick up the same torch of disappointment. “Election Year” isn’t just a reminder that this is a bad series – it’s also an increasingly pointless one. In three short years writer-director James DeMonaco has moved from a modestly inspired premise (murder being legal in the United States for a twelve-hour period each year) to dropping prepackaged thrills and socioeconomic topics du jour into a blender. “Election Year” is a slushy mess.

The biggest problem with the franchise’s latest entry isn’t its clunky dialogue or uninspired supporting characters; it’s that DeMonaco either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about the real-life issues he’s exploiting for dollar store thrills. In a time of drone warfare and Black Lives Matter and politicians playing to the lowest impulses of the electorate, DeMonaco’s threequel is certainly relevant. What it’s not is smart or empathetic or anything close to helpful to the causes it’s superficially championing, coming down on the side of the backwards behavior it looks to condemn.

Actor Frank Grillo has curiously been demoted to supporting player here, reprising “Anarchy” lead Leo Barnes, now head of security for anti-Purge presidential candidate Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell). Grillo was the lone highlight of the last film, making his sidelining here that much more annoying. Although present for much of the film, the character gets very little to do, shepherding Senator Roan from point A to point B, dispatching of various masked purgers along the way.

The only wrinkle in the story this time around is that the pro-Purge New Founding Fathers Of America have stripped purge exemptions from the rich and powerful, a transparent play for the assassination of Senator Roan. To fill out the screenplay, DeMonaco injects a few distractingly dull everymen and everywomen into the story, all centered on a deli owned by a goodhearted entrepreneur named Joe (Mykelti Williamson). Also on hand are a Mexican immigrant named Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) and a vigilante do-gooder named Laney (Betty Gabriel) who gets the movie’s best moment – violently running her triage van over a purger.

This kind of mixed messaging is sporadically funny but not enough to save the linear screenplay from itself, one that’s without a true lead character. It’s not Grillo’s movie nor is it Mitchell’s (although she lends the movie its most human performance), leaving moviegoers with a pedestrian potboiler that utterly fails to dig any deeper. The upshot is one of the most superficial thrillers in recent memory, leaning hard on short bursts of amateurish dialogue and tired stereotypes – one of the things it likes to think it’s rebuking.

A few minor supporting performances hint at the funnier, more self-aware movie that DeMarco decided not to make, the filmmaker dead set on invoking serious topics and letting audiences fill in the blanks. There are many, many blanks.

“Election Year” isn’t as ugly as “Anarchy,” but it’s a far cry from the relatively subtle political commentary – and passable thrills – of the 2013 original. If the series truly does end here, as its climax suggests, it’s the best possible outcome at this point, DeMonaco getting out before he digs itself an even deeper hole. Purge no more, horror fans. The time has come to return this franchise from whence it came: the recycling bin.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: July 1, 2016
Studio: Universal Pictures, Blumhouse Productions
Director: James DeMonaco
Screenwriters: James DeMonaco
Starring: Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Edwin Hodge, Betty Gabriel, Joseph Julian Soria, Mykelti Williamson
MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing bloody violence and strong language)