It was perhaps inevitable that the insane American political climate of 2016, fascinated with civilian militarism and and at least one truly grotesque presidential candidate, would find itself co-opted by pop culture’s most gruesomely dark and sloppily moral action-thriller franchise. The result is “The Purge: Election Year.”
2013’s “The Purge” began as a more or less simple home invasion movie — though one with hints of a sinister backstory. But while the rest of the moviegoing world was bingeing on superhero franchises, watching the Avengers exorcise the aftermath of 9/11, a different brand of chaos was pushing its way into popular culture like a tenacious weed through concrete; call it The Purge Cinematic Universe.
Previously on “The Purge,” we were introduced to a future America, the year 2022, in which crime largely has been eradicated thanks to something known as the New Founding Fathers. Powered by a sweeping conformity, a fundamentalist religious zeal, and a major case of the kill-‘em-alls, the U.S. population “celebrates” an annual event called the Purge, in which all crime, including murder, is legal for a 12-hour period. They do this because they’re told to do this, and because dressing up in Halloween costumes and taking chainsaws to annoying neighbors is exhilarating.
In the first film, a well-to-do family led by Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey dealt with the effects of the annual blood circus on their own fortress-like McMansion. And that was pretty much it. Message: Are you rich and do you live in a bubble of delusion? You are going to die.
In “The Purge: Anarchy,” the action takes place outside among the have-nots in an almost apocalyptic Los Angeles, as cop Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo, “Captain America: Civil War”) leads a band of terrified people to safety. It’s here we learn more about the so-called New Founding Fathers. Turns out they use the Purge to keep the poor, non-white, non-powerful population to a minimum. Message: Are you anyone without access to major wealth and your own bunker or armored vehicle? You are going to die.
The fascism, racism, and sincerely held paranoia is on explicit display this time around, and that’s because it’s time to vote for a new President, a ritual that brings out the gnarly worst in anyone prone to it. One of the candidates, however, is anti-Purge. Charlene “Charlie” Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell, “Lost”) witnessed the slaughter of her entire family 18 years ago, and promises to end the Purge if elected. Naturally, she’s now a target of the people who profit most from Americans killing Americans for sport.
Enter Barnes, promoted from police officer to Roan’s chief of security, and we’re back on the streets, as they stay one step ahead of the New Founding Fathers’ conspiracy to kill the woman who would upset the political status quo. Joining the escape team are a convenience store owner (Mykelti Williamson, “Justified”), his loyal employee (Joseph Julian Soria, “Army Wives”), and a formerly violent neighborhood woman turned Purge angel of mercy (Betty Gabriel, “Experimenter”).
Grillo is exactly the right man for this role, the thoughtful tough guy who can pull bullets out of his own body and who always looks like he needs a shower, but who can’t stop for such indulgences until he knows everyone else is safe. And the ensemble around him forms a tight, empathic unit. We want the Purge to keep going; we also want this crew to smack it down hard.
Returning writer-director James DeMonaco deepens and details his sick, sad world, piling on despicable corporate behavior, NRA profiteers, violent anti-Purge activism, shoplifting schoolgirls in party dresses who carry blinged-out machine guns and kill to Miley Cyrus songs, fun-loving Purgers rigging up public guillotines, Purge-by-drone, Lincoln Memorial vandalism, neo-Nazi mercenaries, murder tourism, and at least one sing-along to the old American Christian hymn, “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.”
“The Purge: Election Year,” much like “The Purge: Anarchy” before it, wears its vintage John Carpenter allegiance on its sleeve. DeMonaco and editor Todd E. Miller only let up the action in order to draw your attention to some new perverse curiosity of modern death fetishism. DeMonaco’s vision is realized effectively by the murk and shadow of cinematographer Jacques Jouffret (like DeMonaco, he’s shot all three “Purge” movies), where most of the shots seem to be lit by emergency-exit signs and the kind of hand-held lamps found at construction sites, underground tunnels, and other places where the pick-ax killer from “My Bloody Valentine” would hang out.
It’s a grim world of nasty pleasures here, the kind you won’t feel guilty about unless it all somehow comes true in 2017. In the meantime, there’s no real harm in doing like DeMonaco and having your grindhouse cake and eating it, too. Cheer on a violent film about righteous non-violence today, why don’t you? There’ll be plenty of time to be sorry about it later.