PLOT: When the annual Purge strikes down in Washington, DC in 2025, Leo Barnes must quell the assassination attempt of presidential frontrunner Charlene Roan and her platform to put an end the horrific holiday for good. Will he succeed?
REVIEW: With more than a decade spent penning scripts for others to direct (THE NEGOTIATOR, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13), James DeMonaco has found a niche and honed his authorial voice with the three-pronged PURGE franchise...a grand hypothetical of legally sanctioned crime that he conceived of, wrote and directed. The first flick, essentially a home invasion piece, boasted the unique premise with great verve but little consequence. The second chapter, ANARCHY, grew in scope toward lawless urban plight seen as entertainment for the elite, but bogged down with a dour tone and one-dimensional characters. Now, with the timely ELECTION YEAR, not to be overly platitudinous, but third time is most definitely the charm for DeMonaco, as he's clearly learned from his mistakes, redrafted and delivered the best movie of the bunch. With a higher and much needed sense of levity - however darkly satirical - highly compelling characters we can care about, a far more topically salient story-line, barbarously upped kill-quotient and nary a dull moment - political or apolitical, THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR is bound to win the unwavering vote of the masses!
Washington, DC - March of 2025. Hours before the annual purge, we meet Senator and presidential nominee Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), as she makes a heartened plea to the American public as to why the horrific holiday ought to be outlawed. She contends that, for more than 20 years, the annual purge has only proven to enrich the wealthy and debase the poor, in effect driving a deeper wedge between the haves and have nots and robbing America of its soul. It's a platform that has won over the constituency and bumped the Seantor's numbers within one point of the NFFA incumbent (New Found Fathers of America). But the election is still two months away, with the 12-hour Purge only moments from commencement. Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) is now head of security for the Senator, saddled with protecting her from what's sure to come: a government coup. Barnes is still gruff, mysterious, haggard, but ultimately up to the task. He, like Senator Roan, has suffered firsthand the horrors of the Purge. The senator even lost her whole family to it 18 years prior, which is the chief reason she's vowed to ban the decree once and for all.
On the other side of town resides the endangered heart and soul of the city, and by proxy the film. Deli owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) steals the show as a wise-cracking, blue-collar business owner looking after his emigrated Mexican employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) and previous Purge victim Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel), whom he's known since she was a child. These three are the true stars of the film, well drawn characters we can express legitimate concern for, the kind we want to ride and roll with all the way to the end. Adding to the empathy is the fact Joe's Purge insurance just got raised by thousands of dollars, in effect threatening his ownership. While he and Marcos plan to post up and protect the deli once the Purge starts, Laney is off saving lives in a triage truck she traverses the city in. Of course, when Barnes and Senator Roan escape an assassination attempt, they seamlessly happen upon Joe and Marcos, and together with the help of Laney, the quintet set out to quell a larger purge plot of martyrdom, dispatching a legion of ultra-militarized mercenaries paid to kill the senator and her anti-purge agenda. And if that isn't hectic enough, they must do so against a murderous milieu, a hyper-violent backdrop of a city in ruins that leads them through a labyrinthine subterranean DC tunnel system.
And it's all so damn entertaining throughout. The two crosscut story-lines converge so organically that there's never a false step or dull spot in the action. The momentum constantly hurls forward, pitting our heroes against no less than a three-tiered wave of brutally violent assailants. There's one scene in particular involving a group of European tourists only in town for the purge - a phenomenon dubbed as murder tourism - that ends in a ferocious gun-battle that drew vocal cheers from the audience. In fact, on a strictly visceral level, most of the spectacular carnage-comeuppance plays as a surefire crowd pleaser. But really, it's the sociopolitical commentary the movie addresses that gives the overall experience a prescient weight the other PURGE flicks fail to toll. Issues regarding drone strikes, shadow armies, off-record mercenaries and perhaps most pressing, the systematic disenfranchisement of the downtrodden are all touched upon, but never in a manner that feels overly proselytized. This isn't a preachy flick, it's one that rather raises more questions than it posits affirmative answers.
For instance, is killing the killers really a just way of preventing further murder? In the old, "you must break some eggs in order to make an omelet" logic, I suppose that line of thinking makes sense. Otherwise, the action is merely a hypocritical hypothetical. Is governmentally sanctioned crime a necessary evil in order to control the population? Is this oddly Darwinian 21st century natural selection really a viable option for ridding future crime? Or, as the senator contends, is this merely a power play by the elite to ferret out the weak and keep control in the hands of an oligopolistic few? Or, even more alarming, must the black and brown proletariat really die in order to protect and save the affluent white? Will such really incite change? At what cost? These are all hard issues that are scratched under the guise of an action flick allowing the audience a vicarious vent to blow off some steam. Hopefully that in itself is enough to stir debate and induce real (nonviolent) action. Even if it doesn't, if the movie merely functions as a diversionary entertainment, it still prevails. Because of the much more humorous tone, the far more likeable characters, the timely importance of the subject matter and the viscerally escalated violent sequences, there's no doubt about it, THE PURGE ELECTION YEAR is indeed a winning ticket!