In 2013 we were introduced to the concept of The Purge via a moderately OK home invasion thriller. In the near future America has followed through to its natural conclusion and holds an annual event in which all laws are suspended for twelve hours. Everything is legal from murder to… murder. The films never really explore my other crimes. An interesting concept wasted was the critical consensus and yet a franchise was born.
Just over a year later and a sequel had been knocked together. The Purge: Anarchy is not a perfect film either but at least took the feedback on board and ventured outside of a single house to see the carnage outside. Frank Grillo played a grieving father out on Purge Night to avenge his son’s death. Instead of wreaking revenge he finds himself defending the vulnerable and learning from Edwin Hodge’s resistance fighter that The Purge is essentially a way for the rich to cull the lower classes. Once again we have a concept more interesting that the film containing it.
And so to The Purge: Election Year. Grillo is back and this time his character has a name and a job! I won’t bog you down in details like his name but his job is pivotal to the plot. Grillo is now the bodyguard of a Senator played by Elizabeth Mitchell. She is coming close to winning the US election and has pledged to end The Purge if she gets into office. Naturally the elites who thrive on The Purge aren’t happy to let her win and use Purge Night to launch an assassination attempt.
Before too long Grillo and the Senator are on the streets just trying to stay alive as they stumble across numerous drama students wearing masks, loaded with blood packs, and armed with overly arch dialogue. Along the way the pair meet up with a ragtag bunch of other survivors who want to bring down the existing government by foul means or fair. What follows are a series of events, some schlocky acting, and a dramatic showdown in a church.
Can they all survive the night? Will the Senator give into base instincts or can she win on principles alone? Is this film racist? All important questions I am sure you will agree.
More than ever these films feel incredibly prescient. Considering the climate in America surrounding Donald Trump and separately the Black Lives Matter movement it seems like the right time for a film exploring what happens when tyrants rule and people are killed based on their social grade. Whether this films succeeds in exploring these issues is another matter. Sadly the film just feels weighed down by its attempt at importance and takes itself too seriously when it should be having fun.
When the laughs do come they tend to be at the expense of the film or, more worryingly, in response to some of the dialogue. The films heart lies with Mykelti Williamson who plays a shopkeeper that Grillo and chums fight alongside. Williamson is a self-made man who just wants to defend his store and he does so with a series of one liners that had the audience laughing in astonishment. Williamson is given dialogue that could only have been written by a white screenwriter, James DeMonaco, writing for a black actor. I felt a similar sense of unease to when I saw The Hateful Eight and shuddered as the room of largely white males laughed as the N-word was bandied about and women were hit in the face.
A sample line of dialogue: “There are a whole bunch of Negros coming this way. and we’re looking like a big ol’ bucket of fried chicken.” There’s no way I can hear that line followed by a loud belly laugh without feeling deeply uneasy.
On the surface The Purge: Election Year is a harmless action horror with some interesting ideas bubbling away at its depths. Look too close and instead you find a cheaply made sequel that squanders its premise and betrays its diverse cast.