It has been two years since Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) stopped himself from a regrettable act of revenge on Purge Night - the 12 hours of lawlessness. This year, the annual ritual comes at the eve of a heated presidential election with the nation deeply divided between those who are pro- and anti-Purge. As head of security for Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), Leo's mission is to protect her during her controversial and contested run for president. But when a betrayal forces them onto the streets of Washington, D.C. on the one night when no help is available, they must stay alive or both be sacrificed for their sins against the state.
'The Purge: Election Year' is yet another disappointing entry in a film series that had the potential to be really creative and fascinating, but instead ended up formulaic and predictable. For those unfamilar with the concept, the Purge is a policy put together by a new government, recognized as the New Founding Fathers of America, in which almost all crime (including murder) is legal for a 12-hour period once a year. This allows participating members of society to go nuts, and act on their ugliest impulses, attacking almost anything and anyone. As a result of this annual practice, America has become great again with a strong economy and reduced crime.
'The Purge' focused on a single Yuppie family terrorized by surrounding neighbors of an upscale neighborhood. Hiding with the family was an African-American stranger (Edwin Hodge), whose role is a stereotypical "is he friend or is he foe?" type. That film left me impatient with logistically implausible scenarios (a house which was apparently large enough to reside in two zip codes), and protagonists who were barely two-dimensional. The second film, 'The Purge: Anarchy' followed up with Hodge's role (now known as "Dwayne," an anti-Purge militant) and introduced a set of new characters with much of the action taking place in an urban neighbohood. Despite being set on a larger scale than the first movie, I found it even more unmemorable (so much so, that I ended up doing some cheap and fast online research to refresh me on what had happened).
'The Purge: Election Year' is bigger and broader in scope than the previous two movies. It addresses the overall merits of the acts in this reformed United States. As the film opens, we're told that Purging has been in effect for nearly 20 years (even though everything looks as modern as before), but that there has been growing resistance to the NFFA's policies which is the main subject of an upcoming Presidential election. Senator Roan (played by Elizabeth Mitchell, who in a couple of shots sometimes resembles Ann Coulter) heads the opposition, years after her own family was tortured and murdered during a past Purge. The Senator is closely protected by a Secret Service agent, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) who was first seen as a Purger for out for revenge from 'Anarchy' but is now filled with a purpose to stop the practice. Meanwhile, the New Founding Fathers, primarily represented by Caleb Warrens (Raymond J. Barry) are determined in maintaining their power and take steps to kidnap the Senator, and sacrifice her on Purge night.
The movie introduces the Senator, and the circumstances surrounding her political campaign, which is briefly interrupted by the annual Purge tradition. Following an attack on her house, the Senator and Barnes escape to the streets of Washington, DC, where they encounter a group of urban residents, including deli owner Joe Dickson (played by Bubba Gump himself Mykelti Williamson), his employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), their friend and community assistant Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel), and a group of black militants led by Dwayne "Dante" Bishop (Hodge). These activists also provide underground medical care and food to Purge victims, and are likewise anti-FFA. Basically 'The Purge: Election Year' is all about a resistance fighting the powers that be.
I appreciate the writer/director's intent on making this third film something more than just a hide-and-seek among killers and victims. However, the ambition here is miguided and the results are wrongheaded. I am uncomfortable to see a sequel, which is little more than a voyeur's delight in homicidal revenge fantasies patterned after 'Friday the 13th,' becoming so doggedly and simplistically political. Racial problems involving the rich (mainly stereotyped WASPs which make up the FFA) suppressing the downtrodden (primarily poor blacks residing in "bad" neighborhoods") by way of the Purge are trivialized in questionable taste. The bad guys are embodied by Neo-Nazis (complete with tattoos, swaztikas, and shaved heads) while the good guys are comprised of armed gangsters (and even include the Crips). Insurance companies are held to be evil and corrupt (as exemplified by a ludicrous scene in which Joe finds out his insurer has immediately raised his rates to unaffordable levels, forcing him to take arms and secure his deli on Purge night.) During a speech, the Senator specifically mentions the NRA as a group on the wrong side of society, without any retort or explanation by her opposition. Even a group of European visitors don costumes mocking national symbols (Uncle Sam, the Statue of Liberty, Abraham Lincoln) and take part in violently ridiculing Americans. This whole movie is so over the top in its politics that it comes close to bad parody. I've rarely seen villains portrayed so diabolically and heavy handedly, and I've seen every superhero movie there is!
I won't even touch on the obvious parallels to this current election because the comparisons are painfully obvious. While nobody mentions specific political parties, the election charts puts our heroine's name in blue, and the enemy's in red. But while everyone is so staunchly political, what has never been addressed in the Purge series is just how these ideals were developed so far into practice in the first place. How did the NFFA, a domatically religious group, get Americans to accept such widespread and random domestic killing for all these years? Wasn't there a sufficient psychological effect to counter its policies from years before? Are we to now assume that the NFFA were always over-the-top Republican stereotypes? How could a society (or anyone for that matter) trust an out of control Purge participant the morning after? These are questions that should have been explored, but apparently can't be presented to a general, movie-going audience.
Amidst all the arguing regarding the merits and consequences of the Purge, several memorable set pieces are introduced, including Joe vigorously defending his deli from a couple of vengeful shoplifting kids (his rooftop lookout brings back memories of Korean-Americans defending their business during the Rodney King riots in LA); a helicopter attack by the Neo Nazis who are adamant in tracking down the Senator; a chaotic shootout in a church; and a final hand-to-hand confrontation between Barnes and the lead Neo Nazi in a moment reminiscent of the climax in Richard Donner's first 'Lethal Weapon' movie. While the action is competent and moderately entertains, the mayhem sometimes feels like a water-downed 'Saw' film, where the stylish surrealism is more unsettling than the violence itself. In fact, none of the Purge moments every feel truly threatening, and some are even just plain puzzling. (In one scene, the Senator and Barnes are confronted by a swinging guillotine in the middle of an alley, and they have to meticulously time passing in between swings, when it's all-too clear that they can duck right under it.) Movie fans will easily predict the direction of the movie and the final fate of one or two characters just by the initial set-ups alone. For instance, one character's eventual demise is ham-handedly forshadowed based on his criminal past and desire to pass on his American dream, and a plot point which begins as an assassination unsurprisingly turns into a rescue mission. (It's even spelled out during an exchange of dialogue.) To reveal these morality plays and twists and turns of the story might otherwise spoil the movie. However, the eventual revelation provides no surprises.
Overall, just as 'Superman IV: The Quest for Peace' (to name a very broad example) could not address the nuclear arms race with any degree of seriousness and credibility amidst all the superhero trappings (the clearance shelf production and poor screenplay also didn't help matters), neither can 'The Purge: Election Year' elevate its genre to anything above escapist trash.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Purge: Election Year' comes on a single BD-50 Blu-ray in a standard two-disc keepcase. A DVD copy is also included, as well as a Digital HD download with s code printed on an insert. On the other side of the page, is an advertisement for 'The Walking Dead' attraction at Universal Studios. A cardboard slip case packages the whole movie with cover art of garish and admittedly spooky looking masks staring glaringly like demented Trick-or-Treaters.
The AVC/MPEG-4 encoded 1080p picture presents a solid viewing experience with an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. Even with most scenes taking place at night, the Blu-ray offers a nice blend of dark blues, deep blacks and all shades of brown and orange. These colors stand out even in otherwise shadowy places, like the fire-lit streets of DC and the underground hide-outs which are illuminated by flood lights. Details are so well-presented that special effects like gunshots, splattering blood and gore cannot hide their CGI-based origins.
There is definitely a "digital look" to the movie, which makes darker scenes somewhat antiseptic and clean, where grain and grit might have added to the horror atmosphere. On other hand, all those disturbing masks show up with a clarity which make them all the more memorable. I have yet to see a movie in this series which provides anything but the kind of high standards we expect from Blu-ray.
The DTS-HD Master Audio is a solid presentation of the movie's soundtrack, but the surround sound design isn't as nearly as imaginative as I hoped. Dialogue is clear, intelligible and precise coming primarily from the center and with few ambient voices appearing in any other channel. There are distinctively directional sound effects when machinery is involved, like a swooping helicopter, endless gunfire or a rumbling truck. However, for a film built upon paranoia and fear of one's surroundings, rear channel activity is rather restrained.
Dynamics are surprisingly modest, other than one or two "boo!" scares, but at least the viewer is bombarded by a cacophany of noise. Low-frequency is likewise reserved, with only occasional activity. I suppose that in a film like this, silence is just as unsettling as thunder, but I like my horror movies to have as much surrounding tease as possible (no matter how cheap or gimmicky).
'The Purge: Election Year' has a modest supply of bonus materials. Along with a Digital HD with Ultraviolet download copy, the package includes a DVD version accompanying the Blu-ray. The extras are presented in 1080p high definition and in Dolby Digital stereo.
Deleted Scenes (8:09): Offered as a series of titled clips, most of these deletions simply contain a few additional lines of dialogue or transitional moments already made clear in the final cut. There is nothing which expands on characters or enriches the story, These scebes can be viewed individually or consecutively ("Play All") and are labeled as follows:
"Security Prep" (:30) - Shots of Secret Service guarding the home of the Senator.
"Senator Roan's Home" (:48) - A few more lines of dialogue between security and the Senator.
"Purge Montage" (1:24) - Extended shots of the Triage Van roaming the neighborhood while the Purge occurs.
"Romantics" (:33) - Dialogue between the deli owner (Joe) and his employee (Marcos) talking about their female conquests.
"Partners" (1:08) - More dialogue between the Joe and Marcos before they help out certain Purge victims.
"The Triage Van" (3:22) - Extended dialogue of characters riding around in the van explaining their politics.
"Searching for the Senator" (:31) - A quick scene where the Neo-Nazis inspect a van while looking for their prey.
Inside: The Purge (5:31): This is a standard, but satisfactory, behind the scenes look into the main feature. Director and writer James DeMonaco is given sufficient screentime to discuss his movies and explain his intentions with making the third film. Actors and production crew are also interviewed, but the majority of the focus is in praise of the director.
Character Spotlight: Leo (3:34): While arguably the most interesting character in this movie, it seems a bit odd to me that a whole segment would be devoted to Frank Grillo's role. His background had already been established early on as a man seeking reform, and other than getting along with his co-horts, there isn't that much more of an evolution by the end of this outing. Still, Grillo discusses his character with enthusiasm and gusto so hardcore fans will enjoy hearing what he has to say. Whether it's enough to warrant a spin-off franchise is a whole other matter...
'Purge: Election Year' is perhaps a fitting end to a series which seems to have run its course (that is, until a reboot comes due). While I find the concept to be morally intriguing and logistically fascinating, the execution over three films has been pedestrian and superficial. But I guess it's difficult to expect much more from a genre which emphasizes violence and horror rather than any over psycho-socio-political analysis. For fans of the first two 'Purge' films, this one is a must see for the sake of completion. For all others, I would cast my vote for an alternative entertainment experience.