By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on Movies: The Purge: Election Year
THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: James DeMonaco, 2016
Bad movies sometimes tell us as much, or more, about the world and society around us as the good ones. The Purge: Election Year — a sordid, ultra-violent clichéd howitzer of an action picture which has a few good scenes and has attracted a huge audience, is the third bloody chunk of an crime-horror-political-satire trilogy (the first two were 2013’s The Purge and 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy) about a murderous future U.S.A. where once a year, all the laws are repealed for twelve hours, all the police and judges and hospitals are sent home or closed down, and the entire population of the United States is left at the mercy of the gangs and mobs and psychos and killers who rove the streets unchecked.
Sound like fun? For a lot of people, apparently, it is. The Purge movies, like many contemporary action thrillers, including the most popular, doesn’t make much damned sense — but I suppose you could argue that, if they did make more sense, audiences wouldn‘t like them as much. They might get bored. The very absurdity of this movie, the way it hops and blasts from one clichéd bloodbath to another, may be what makes it entertaining for some, or a lot, of the audience. For some people, a lot of people apparently, it works. But the movie kept slipping off my radar, even as writer-director James DeMonaco worked to liven things up with quirky characterization and foul-mouthed street humor, and by cranking up the suspense and trying to plug in more satire. I appreciated the effort, but I wasn’t able to join the laughter and occasional cheers the press audience supplied.
The Purge: Election Year begins with some flashbacks that set the scene and some of the characters for us — and that show both the Good Guys and The Bad Guys, and all the victims in between, getting ready for the Big Night. The rationale for the purge is that if the populace is allowed to run amok, and if they can look forward to these orgies of violence every year, they won’t behave badly and kill people and rob and steal and vandalize and beat the hell out of innocent bystanders the rest of the year. Really? Maybe more people would develop a taste for violence, just as more people exposed to films like The Purge, may develop a taste for more violent movies.
But, as before, DeMonaco doesn’t waste time trying to justify it. The Purge Nights have been dreamed up by the one-percenters and oligarchs and rich people — the ones with enough loot to afford guards and elaborate protections and defense — and they’re the forces behind the political establishment that runs the show, a far right wing organization called The New Founding fathers, or the NFFA. (The similarity in sound to the N. R. A. seems intentional.)
In the first Purge picture, the protagonist was Ethan Hawke, as a middle class father trying to protect his family, which was protected instead by the black loner who shows up, on the run from the nasty rich kids who harass Hawke’s household. In the second picture, which had a bigger budget, the main characters are out in the streets, which are strangely deserted but still dangerous. In this third film, there are more roaming protagonists, including a woman candidate for President in the next election, Senator Charlene “Charlie” Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), who’s running on an anti-Purge platform. Charlie plans to purge the Purge because, 18 years earlier on another Purge Night, she lost her entire family to a gang of rock ‘n roll killers who broke into their house and blasted T. Rex and George Clinton while massacring everybody but Charlie.
For some curious reason, Sen. Roan, who is supposed to be running for President of the U. S. but lacks the usual retinue and entourage and political aides and press and (for the most part) police protectors that you’d expect even an Independent presidential candidate on the Green or Legalize Marijuana ticket to have. Charlie, who in no way resembles Hilary Clinton (except for her glasses), ends up with one functioning guard — Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), who also lost part of his family and was a character in The Purge: Anarchy. You also would have thought a Presidential candidate would have been better able to stay indoors, along with most of the population. around, and that there would be more explanation of why she ends up with one bodyguard out on the streets. But soon Leo and Charlie are running around town with a colorful little crew they bump into: a wisecracking deli owner named Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) and his badmouth girl buddy Laney Tucker (Betty Gabriel) and others.
There are a lot of bloody scuffles and bad language, and we suspect that eventually Charlie and Leo and Company will end up clashing with The New Founding Fathers of America, a congregation of well-dressed elite who are gathering in a local cathedral to fill the pews with blather and propaganda (delivered by Kyle Secor as Rev. Edwidge Owens, who looks like a TV preacher and clothes horse), and to throw holy water on their guns. We’re not far wrong.)
END OF SPOILER
Back in the 1970s, when the paradigms for shows like this were being set down — by Roger Corman and other ballsy independent producers — this kind of picture would have been a low budget job, and it probably would have been better for it. If they were going to spend more money on The Purge: Election Year, they might at least have played around more with the idea of an entire nation plunged into chaos.
One of the strange things about the Purge series is that most of the criminal activity seems to be coming from street kids and delinquents, when you’d think some actual mobsters might take advantage of the absence of the police try to break into major banks or the mint. You’d also think there might be riots and maybe even a little terrorism. But each of the Purge movies has focused on a small group of people in a sometime half-deserted or not too populous area. Rev. Owens’ well-dressed congregation is about the biggest crowd we see. Partly that’s because DeMonaco wants to make villains of the well-fixed establishment and draw his heroes and heroines from the common people — which should be all right for me, but, in this case seems to be more a result of the scale of the production than of plausible extrapolation.
Writer-director DeMonaco has written fairly bloody, fairly effective thrillers like The Negotiator and the remake of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (also with Hawke) and he’s definitely hit the jackpot with the Purge series. He’s also left an opening for a sequel at the end of this movie. One of his producers here, by the way, is the often-maligned action picture specialist Michael Bay — who’s made better movies himself.
But, as with the Liam Neeson C. I. A. thrillers, which don’t make much sense either, DeMonaco has thrown logic to the winds — or maybe just purged it. Even so, the acting is pretty good — but mostly unremarkable, except for Williams, who supplies almost all the humor and hijacks every scene. Purge: Election Year has somewhat scruffy-looking backgrounds and deliberately garish cinematography (by Frenchman Jacques Jouffret) and zingy editing by Todd E. Miller. But there’s nothing really special about it technically or visually. Most of the time. just the central idea seems to be propelling it along: What would the world be like if the guardians and police all took a holiday? And what would the action movies be like, I wonder, if all the producers took a holiday? They probably should.