The Purge: Election Year and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures
Directed by James DeMonaco
For the past few months, there hasn’t been a movie I was more excited to see than this one. I still haven’t seen the first movie, but the SECOND one is a really great B-Movie in the vein of John Carpenter or even modern day directors like Gareth Evans. It was more than just an action shlock-fest though as it really wanted to say something about its premise in between the outrageous violence. This one though? This looks like they’re going full-tilt on having something to say about society, politics, and violence in our culture! In between the brutal murders and silly costumes of course. Does this manage to be yet another sequel this year that ends up better than the previous film, or have they run out of genuine ideas and are now just parroting hot button issues? Let’s find out!!
The movie takes place two years after the events of The Purge: Anarchy where Frank Grillo’s character from the that film FINALLY has a name (Leo Barnes) and has somehow found his way to being the head of security for Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) who is poised to win the Presidential Election that year and will hopefully end the purge. Unfortunately for her, the ruling party in the US Government (the New Founding Fathers of America, or NFFA) would very much like to keep their jobs and to keep the purge going so they can kill lots more poor people, so their plan to stop the senator is to change the rules of the purge so as to lift the ban on killing government officials; leaving them free to send a whole bunch of mercs (neo-Nazi ones of course) to take her out. Well not if Frank Grillo has anything to say about it! He manages to get her away from the assassins after their initial assault on the Senator’s home and they end up finding a few people trying to survive the night and more than willing to help the senator who will bring an end the purge once and for all. These include Joe Dixon (Mykelit Williamson) who owns a small convenience store that is being threatened that night, his employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) who wants to help his boss, and Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel) who is one of the volunteers that helps people get medical treatment during purge night. Can this rag tag group of badasses manage to outrun the NFFA? Will Senator Roan be able to win the election, or should they find a way to ensure her victory this very night? There have been what, fifteen purges already? You’d think some of these people would find it all passé at this point.
This movie is fucking amazing! It’s everything I could have wanted from a sequel to the last movie and lives up to all the promises that were made in the trailers. James DeMonaco proves once again that he knows exactly how to get to the heart of this premise and may just be the right director to fill in Carpenter’s shoes, which is hilarious considering that he was the writer of the Assault on Precinct 13 remake. Then again, I think the last movie managed to capture the essence of Carpenter more as it was basically a spiritual successor to Escape from New York, while this one takes a more thoughtful approach to its premise so that it resembles Paul Verhoeven a bit more, or maybe Oliver Stone with a dash of Spike Lee. No seriously, the movie is THAT good. I’ll get to the minor flaws this movie has at some point, but all you need to know is this is one of the sharpest, funniest, and most poignant action thrillers we’ve gotten in a REALLY long time and it is without question one of my favorite movies of the year.
This is the kind of movie that you get from a young headstrong director who was let loose with a modest budget and a chip on his shoulder. Of course the dude here is in his late forties, but like last year’s Dope, this somewhat older director manages to capture the current zeitgeist in a way that’s perfectly in tune with what the young people out there are feeling. Or at least that’s how I felt about it. I’m twenty-four (practically ancient, I know) so maybe the even younger kids out there won’t connect to this as well as I did, but I honestly can’t think of a more timely film to have come out in the last few years except maybe the aforementioned Dope. That said the age of the director actually does have a noticeable impact on this movie as it’s calling back to the formative films of their youth that their target audience might not be aware of. Like I said, this is basically a Carpenter film for the twenty-first century with hints of the overt politicism and satire of Verhoeven, Stone, and Lee; all directors who are well known but really aren’t A-List directors anymore. Carpenter is in retirement, Verhoeven went back to the Netherlands, Lee’s last movie could only find a home on Amazon, and while Stone is still releasing films (Snowden’s coming out in September), he’s not the earth shattering director he was when he was at his peak. This guy, if he manages to move on to something even better, could be that voice again which is sorely needed in mainstream Hollywood. Oh and just to make the comparison again, Dope is the same way with F Gary Gray and John Singleton movies of the nineties.
So how does this movie manage to pull off being both a timely examination of our political landscape while also being a loving throwback to the outlandish action films of the late seventies and early eighties? Well that latter is really easy to answer; there’s a lot of violence of gore that’s shot fairly well in here. There’s a bit of the CLOSE UPS, QUICK CUTS, SHAKY CAM bullshit that you find in every other damn movie that’s made nowadays, but it’s SO much less pronounced here and the action is never hard to follow. It’s intense and manages to make the most of its resources by giving us some really great FUCK YEAH moments throughout while being creative in terms of the monsters walking around at night and the ways in which they dispatch their victims. About a fifth of this movie is basically the characters riding around in a truck as they watch the madness going on around them which is a gimmick that doesn’t overstay its welcome and gets a lot of world building done just by showing these people indulging in their baser instincts.
So it really does work as a horror/action film (it’s not so much scary as it is grotesque) and manages to keep you invested just through the sheer creativity and craftsmanship with which they show you this world ruled by madness. Then they throw in the politics and social commentary, and THAT’S where the movie goes from badass to damn near transcendent. The filmmakers (most of this is probably coming straight from writer/director James DeMonaco) aren’t pulling any punches on what they believe and how far they’ll go to mock it. In particular, there’s a fantastic set piece in a church that is the perfect cross section of the worst partisan politics, religious fervor, sexual repression (the symbolism here is pretty overt), and any number of isms (racism, classism, sexism, you name it) that feels like… well what we’re going through right now as the GOP tries to reign Trump in and is failing miserably at it. Now movies aren’t made in a couple of months so there’s no overt Trump allegories here (he wasn’t even a viable candidate until early 2016), but honestly I’m glad they didn’t put him in here because that would have dated the movie considerably once he (hopefully) gets his ass handed to him in the general election. Instead of focusing in on an individual we can all point to and say is the problem, the movie goes deeper than that. It goes into the mindset of the kind of people who support Trump now but will still be here once he loses his bid for the presidency. The people who feel victimized by the world and only feel safe when they’re victimizing others which we see in horrific detail from those being repressed and are trying desperately to simply survive this night.
In fact, the people who are just trying to get through this night are the best part of the movie. More than anything else, this movie is about hope. I know that sounds like a lousy Hallmark card, but it’s absolutely true. As much as we see people acting like fools and being cruel to others, there are people throughout the movie who are doing everything they can to help those who need it. The movie introduces Triage Vans into the mythology that roam the streets on Purge Night to help anyone who’s been the victim of an attack; Betty Gabriel being one such volunteer who steals every scene she’s in and has one of the bets action beats of the entire movie. The volunteers who are driving these trucks and working at the secret treatment centers are portrayed as the real heroes of this story and It just goes to show that you can’t bring out the worst in humanity without also bring out the best in it.
The movie isn’t perfect though, so let’s talk about what doesn’t quite work. To me, the film ultimately comes off as a White Hope movie what with they only white characters who AREN’T evil douchebags being Frank Grillo and The Senator; the latter of whom needs to stay alive more than anyone else so she can enact real change and the former being the most competent badass in the movie. It’s not like the other characters in here play second fiddle to these two (Mykelti Williamson, Joseph Jullian Soria, and Betty Gabriel are just as well written and get as much screen time), but it’s still something that hard to ignore; more so when she starts lecturing the leader of the Anti-Purge organization (played by Edwin Hodge throughout all three of these movies) about how it’s wrong to fight fire with fire in this situation. The thing is that I don’t disagree with anything the Senator says or stands for and that scene in particular is the perfect encapsulation of the themes of this movie; plus it works as a test to the audience to see if their thirst for vengeance against the bad guys will win out over the fact that getting that satisfaction would validate what the NFFA has been espousing. It’s just an awkward bit of optics to have the nice white lady tell the angry victims of state sanctioned violence that they need to calm down and act like grownups, you know?
Also, I’ve heard people say that the character of Joe Dixon played by Mykelti Williamson comes off as a stereotypically offensive black man. I can see that I guess, but the character was so endearing to me that his corny lines didn’t really bother me, but then I guess I’m not the person who can say what is and is not an offensive portrayal of a black man. Another character Marcos (played by Joseph Julian Soria) is a bit better because he isn’t trying to do lame one-liners, but he’s a cliché as well. He came from Mexico just wanting to work and finally got his citizenship a few years ago, and of course, back in Mexico, EVERY NIGHT WAS PURGE NIGHT. I’m pretty sure that was an exact quote from the guy. I can see where people would find these characters offensive, but they really do have FANTASTIC chemistry together and with the rest of the cast so it didn’t really bother me too much. To move into something else that didn’t quite work, there’s a group of teenage girls who have a vendetta against Joe Dixon and his shop, and what the movie is saying about these characters is absolutely genius but is not expanded upon all that much and ends up getting undercut by the way the filmmakers chose to film them. I love the idea of looking at how people who grew up not knowing a life BEFORE the purge and seeing how that has affected them. These girls are bratty, vain, and have no sense of consequences, self-preservation, or empathy which is a chilling thought that an entire generation could end up like this. Of course, the movie THEN has to do the slow-mo cheesecake shots of their boobs and up their skirts which almost ends up ruining what they were going for. Harmony Korine was able to pull this shit off in Spring Breakers because that was the whole point (how we both admonish and lust after barely legal bad girls), but by fetishizing them in this movie, it makes the legitimate social commentary come off as insincere. Not only that, but they don’t go very far with that idea of looking at today’s youth, so the girls are the ONLY representation of that. I think there’s like one dude they pass by in the truck who’s ranting about being the most dominant and powerful man in the world (a commentary on Toxic Masculinity perhaps) but it feels like a missed opportunity to not show that side of the equation. Bratty young girls may be an annoyance, but angry young men are dangerous.
There are also some minor technical issues here and there. The movie does look great, but it also had an aggressively small budget so there are scenes that look a lot emptier than they should be. I know that Jason Blum’s bread and butter is to make ten cheap films instead of two expensive ones, but they could have stood to throw a few more million at this project, especially considering how much money the franchise has made already. Some of the fight choreography is off, especially this one awkward looking shot during a shootout where they’re just kind of standing their shooting their guns and its clear they have no idea what it is they’re shooting at or even if they’re shooting back. On less of a technical but more of a franchise note, the time line is kind a screwed up. I’ve seen people peg the first purge (not the first movie, but the first purge in the timeline) as taking place in 2017, and my modicum of research pegs it as not possibly happening any earlier than 2014. This movie takes place in 2025, but Senator Roan was the victim of a purge fifteen years ago which means it would HAVE to of taken place in 2010. They couldn’t fix that in the plot? They couldn’t have said that Senator Roan was attacked ten years ago, or that this takes place in 2029? It just kinda bugs me that a movie this well-made manages to have a plot hole like that. Also, for some reason the election is in May instead of November. Is there any particular reason for that? Not one that I can think of. Honestly, there’s not much else to complain about. It’s a damn fine movie that has some weak writing here and there in terms of character dialogue and sometimes strains under its low budget, but the cast give it everything they’ve got and the director has a steady hand on the entire production as he knows EXACTLY where he wants to do with this series.
This movie is really good just on its technical chops, solid writing, and outlandish premise, but for me it goes that extra mile to give you more than you’d expect, and that’s what makes it so amazing. It’s dark, twisted, and cynical, but it also manages to be hopeful for a better future and it genuinely believes that we can all rise above our worst instincts to become something better. The passion and fury that the filmmakers had when making this movie are palpable while watching it and it ended up speaking to me on a level that no other film this year has managed to do except MAYBE The Witch (yet another horror movie). There are good movies out there like Captain America, The Nice Guys, and Central Intelligence, but none of those really got to me or felt like they had much to say. This movie right here is damn near perfect in being not only a fun gore riddled romp, but also in being about something important. I absolutely encourage you all to go check this out. Right now. Stop reading this, and go!!
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