When people ask me about THE PURGE franchise, I always like to make it clear; I thought the first film was an unmitigated disaster and a complete waste of an original concept, while the second film was more in line with my expectation of its predecessor, and made for a much more enjoyable film (plus, Frank Grillo is a much more believable action hero than Ethan Hawke). So when I started seeing trailers for the latest installment in this franchise, THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR, I was more inclined to give this one a shot, based solely on the goodwill the franchise had built with me after THE PURGE: ANARCHY. So I eagerly checked this out on its opening weekend, and honestly, I was not disappointed.
For those unfamiliar with the premise of THE PURGE franchise, it centers around the annual 12-hour period in the United States where all crime – including murder – are legal. During this time, all emergency services (which include police, fire department, and hospitals) are unavailable. A premise like this is ripe with originality, with so many layers that I would imagine infinite storytelling possibilities for something so poignant and thought-provoking. This was what fueled my anger towards the first film, as you have this amazing concept, and all that the filmmakers can muster for a story is a basic and clichéd home invasion thriller with one setting. I mean, just talk about wasted potential! Most of my complaints about that film were rectified with its sequel, THE PURGE: ANARCHY, which followed different groups of people during the annual Purge, in different locations of the same city. This film, to me, showcased the possibilities of this premise, and restored faith in a franchise that I pretty much had already written off. As a result, I decided to check out THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR, willingly.
The film opens in the year 2022 during the annual Purge (which was the same Purge that we followed in the first film), as a masked man indulging his blood-lust like a true patriot has kidnapped an entire family and relentless taunts them. In the end, all but one of the family members is slaughtered. Eighteen years later, the surviving member, named Charlie Roan (played by Elizabeth Mitchell) is a United States senator currently running for President. Her main platform involves abolishing the Purge once and for all. Her opponent, Minister Edwidge Owens (played by Kyle Secor) is strongly against this; he is the government-backed candidate, tasked with maintaining the status quo. With Senator Roan’s popularity and presidential prospects soaring, this government, named the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) (who established the Purge many years ago) look to use this year’s Purge to rid themselves to the popular senator once and for all. But with Leo Barnes (played by Frank Grillo, reprising his role from ANARCHY) as Senator Roan’s head of security, that proves to be more difficult task than the NFFA was expecting.
Like ANARCHY, I really enjoyed ELECTION YEAR, overall, as a horror film. I thought that the film used its original premise effectively in telling the story of a senator with a target on her back; combine that with the fun, albeit cheesy, action-hero antics of Frank Grillo, and you’re in for a great time. Despite this, there was one aspect of this story that did bother me – not much at first, but more and more as I thought about it. The previous two films in this franchise saw to portray the Purge in shades of grey – meaning that there are good aspects of the Purge to go along with the obvious bad aspects. There’s a scene in the first film (one of the few strong scenes not overshadowed by silliness) where Ethan Hawke’s character explains to his son why we, as a society, need the Purge. While ANARCHY didn’t focus as much on that aspect, the shades of grey were still there.
In ELECTION YEAR, the shades of grey are replaced with black and white, and the lines are clearly drawn; if you support the Purge, you are the villain (and most likely a white conservative) and if you hate the Purge, you are the good guy (and most likely a liberal). I personally don’t like it when filmmakers overly politicize a story. Politics, being the touchy subject that it is, should be left to its own vices and out of entertainment mediums, like film and television shows, lest you alienate half of your audience. While the film’s political aim was more or less in line with my own political beliefs, I didn’t appreciate the sudden shift in tone that the franchise took. I feel that the premise of THE PURGE franchise works best when you keep the shades of grey intact and explore both sides of the Purge. It just gives the premise a more realistic feel to it, rather than your standard “good vs. evil” that ELECTION YEAR seems to have morphed the franchise into.
The performances weren’t bad, albeit unspectacular. Elizabeth Mitchell as Senator Roan, the main target of this year’s Purge, did a great job of creating sympathy for her character – someone that is an obvious composite of both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. But Mitchell didn’t play the character as your typical woman in peril; instead, her performance drove home the defining aspect of her character, a woman who has seen the evil of humanity firsthand, yet still embraces the empathy needed to do her job, along with the strength and spirit to hold her own in a fight. And Frank Grillo was, well, Frank Grillo, and I’ll never complain about that. Supporting performances were provided by Mykelti Williamson as Joe Dixon, a deli owner, and Betty Gabriel as Laney, an EMT who is a relative of Joe’s.
The action of ELECTION YEAR is acceptable, and pretty much what anyone would expect going in. It uses a hybrid of horror and thriller aspects (particularly jump scares) to give the story its key audience-pleasing moments. Some moments worked better than others, but I appreciated what the film was going for in that regard. While the ending was completely predictable, I felt that it was an ending that was truly earned – in other words, the ending didn’t feel tacked on, but rather, the true result of what had come before in the film. But here’s my question – with that ending, could ELECTION YEAR serve as the end of THE PURGE franchise? Judging by the history of horror films, my guess is a resounding NO. These films are cheap to make and usually make big returns at the box office as a result. Why would the studios want to stop this money train?
Is ELECTION YEAR a great film? Not really. Is it a good film? Possibly – it depends on your tastes. Is it corny and cheesy as all hell? Absolutely. But was it fun? You bet! Fans of the franchise and horror films/thrillers will definitely get their money’s worth with this one. It does have its storytelling flaws, and the performances are no better than ones you’d see in a made-for-TV film, but the potential of this original premise is showcased very well, and in general, it’s just a fun ride. And there’s the awesomeness of Frank Grillo, of course – can’t forget him! I wouldn’t rush out to see this in theaters, but ELECTION YEAR would make for some good Netflix or Redbox fare, and you could certainly do much worse on that front.