‘The Purge: Election Year’
James DeMonaco
Stars: Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

In “The Purge: Election Year,” the worst thing happens that could happen in a “Purge” movie: the audience whoops and cheers. That may sound like a silly thing to say about a trashy exploitation grinder released into the belly of the multiplex. The audience is supposed to whoop and cheer. But not at these films. 

The first two “Purges” were secretly smart: sly satires delivering blunt force trauma — whole hog lefty vigilante entries that were, being lefty, of course anti-vigilante. They didn’t feed our lust for blood; they sent it up. They didn’t want us to cheer for carnage. That’s what the villains did: the future American populace long tainted by an annual holiday where, for 12 hours, all murder was legal. Both films knew that gunning for bloodshed, even the onscreen kind, was, ultimately, wrong.

Not the third one. Though “Election Year” keeps up appearances as savage social critique, it sometimes says, “Eff this,” and prods us into cheering on murder with a big, satisfied smile on our face. Granted, it’s only when the bad guys get it. Set two years after the second, it relocates once again, this time to D.C., where Senator Roane, a maverick senator played by Elizabeth Mitchell, is running for president with the promise to cancel the Purge. (She’s sort of Hillary, but perhaps closer to Elizabeth Warren.) Her adversaries — a legion of rich old white men, natch — are afraid to lose a tradition now widely suspected to be what it not-so-secretly is: a way for the wealthy to eliminate the poor while pretending to sate the citizenry. And so they unleash their armed forces to make her one of the holiday’s many new casualties.

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Franchise runner James DeMonaco did some impressive world-building with the last installment, but the third finds him already running out of ideas. It combines the first (about a home invasion) with the second (a survive-the-night urban thriller), with Roane and returning loner Barnes (Frank Grillo), as her head security bro, scampering about the nation’s capital. There are some amusing one-off gags: foreigners have started flying in to take advantage of a bloody American tradition they can’t get back home, and the tension is briefly broken by the sight of a bright-out-your-dead truck carrying discarded corpses like they were victims of a centuries’ old plague.

And yet the writing is noticeably dumber, the sick, its nasty jokes are rarely as inspired. (It has nothing on the "Rick and Morty" parody episode, which might be a better "Purge" movie than them all.) Worst of all, an impolite series that seemed as inspired by “Death Wish” as Howard Zinn never quite becomes the state of the union it could have been. Although maybe that’s not its fault. How could a movie ever be as ridiculous as real life right now? Trumpees would likely see this as a documentary.

It also finally succumbs to a problem planted in the second one, like a time-delayed poison: Grillo’s Barnes was introduced as an anguished hothead who needed to be redeemed. Now he’s just another anonymous badass, like Jason Statham or Gerard Butler, only minus the groaning quips. While Roane fusses about, imploring people not to stoop to the bad guys’ level, Barnes is there to say, “Go ahead.” There was only one scene in the last where we were supposed to mindlessly huzzah as bad people were massacred; here there are four or five. It becomes the risible exploitation fare the first two nimbly mocked, asking us to decry violence then want it served up as gorily as possible. Then again, being a mere Cro-Magnon exploitation movie isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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