First published by Little White Lies
In 2013, writer/director James DeMonaco unleashed The Purge, wherein for one night a year, all crimes (including murder) go unpunished. This killer premise made much satirical play, at least initially, of the vast gulf between America’s over-entitled haves and victimised have-nots, but was confined to, and wasted on, a home invasion scenario. Fortunately the first sequel, 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy, took this high concept from gated suburbia to the mean streets of Los Angeles, amping up both the dystopian allegory and the B-movie exuberance – and now The Purge: Election Year brings its action thrills to the very heart of American politics, Washington D.C., while its release has been carefully timed to coincide with an actual election year in which many of the film’s wilder speculations seem ever closer to being realised.
For almost two decades, the élite New Founding Fathers of America have been drawing their power and profit from an annual eradication of the underclass, and publicly conceal their real agenda in an all-too-familiar populist misappropriation of religious and egalitarian language. Now liberal Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), whose entire family was killed in an earlier Purge, is making a bid for the Presidency on a platform of abolishing the yearly institution for good. Recognising a threat to their status quo, the NFFA use the Purge as cover for sending a professional hit squad against Charlie – but they do not count on the determination of Anarchy‘s vengeance-seeking, grizzled police sergeant Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), now a secret service agent, to protect Charlie at all costs from anything that might stop her reformist ideas dead in their tracks.
Election Year is essentially a chase movie, as kickass Leo escorts Charlie through a hellish urban nightscape of teen psychotics, ‘murder tourists’, luridly costumed packs and state-sponsored killers. On the way, they are helped by an ageing deli owner (Mykelti Williamson), a migrant worker (Joseph Julian Soria), a triage volunteer (Betty Gabriel), a revolutionary activist (Edwin Hodge) and a gang of Crips – all notably proletarian African-Americans or Hispanics from the streets, in contrast with the all-male, all-white, super-privileged and cloistered cabal of the NFFA.
Accordingly DeMonaco’s film gets to have it every which way. Like the slaughter-happy schoolgirl Kimmy (Brittany Mirabile) who is fetishised as eye candy by Jacques Jouffret’s leering camera but also more than willing to break in, burn and kill for her confectionery, Election Years gets to have its cake and eat it too. On the one hand, it is a pacy amalgam of ‘pure genre’ gestures cribbed from The Warriors, Mad Max 2 and especially John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (DeMonaco penned the screenplay for the 2005 remake of Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13), and invites viewers to revel in its trashy B routines and cardboard heroics. On the other hand, it is a journey through a divided and politically polarised America where ultraviolence is always hot on the tail of errant ideology.
Anticipation: The first Purge sequel was better than the original.
Enjoyment: Its politics are aggressively trashy and polarising – just like in America’s real Election Year.
In Retrospect: Despite its political drive, there is just too much ‘B’ under its bonnet.
© Anton Bitel