“Never sneak up on a black man on Purge night.” So says one such man in the most inspired moment of “The Purge: Election Year,” writer-director James DeMonaco’s latest and messiest entry in the outlandish horror franchise he launched three years ago. It’s among a handful of lines where the movie injects some reality into its outrageous scenario, in which murderers once again roam the streets during the one night of the year when killing is legal. But “Election Year” itself sneaks up on its black characters, as if it were almost hesitant to acknowledge that they’re the real stars of this bloody show.
Foregrounding the plights of inner-city minorities, “Election Year” eagerly taps into real-world anxieties. But even its unabashedly blunt allegorical qualities can’t salvage a largely self-serious tone as the movie barrels through a series of showdowns on the streets of D.C. “Election Year” doesn’t hit its target so much as it flings a bunch of random invective in its general direction with intermittently amusing results.
Despite the increased racial focus, most of “Election Year” rehashes the same routine that DeMonaco laid out in the microbudget “The Purge” and considerably improved with the John Carpenter-like “The Purge: Anarchy.” Once again, a crypto-fascist government known as The New Founding Fathers upholds its annual ritual of allowing mayhem to break out in the streets for 12 terrible hours, this time adding a twist to set the main threat in motion: No high-level government workers are protected during the purge.
That includes presidential hopeful and U.S. senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Roan), whose family was murdered in the purge 15 years ago and has launched a valiant campaign to end the tradition once and for all. How it took this otherwise pretty normal-looking society so long to find a candidate willing to push back hardly matters in a movie with such an inherently absurd premise. Any modicum of scrutiny immediately demolishes its guilty pleasure appeal. Certainly “Election Year” captures aspects of that underlying entertainment value, but more often than not, it falls short of doing anything new with it.
DeMonaco’s “Purge” villains are usually just masked psychos parading around the streets with machetes, so it’s no surprise that the central baddie in “Election Year” has little in the way of depth. In the midst of her campaign, Charlie’s pitted against a hate-spewing psychopath (Kyle Secor) who celebrates the purge in all its glory and rides high on his populist message as he dominates the polls. Yes, he’s a dime store Trump — the movie’s tagline, “Keep America Great,” leaves no doubt about its chief inspiration — but even that characterization allows for more substance to this undercooked lunatic than DeMonaco gives him.
In any case, Charlie’s efforts hit a speed bump on purge night when hordes of government-endorsed baddies attempt to knock her off at home. As a result, she’s forced to roam the streets while cowering behind her devout bodyguard (Frank Grillo), who’s been ported over from “The Purge: Anarchy” so the movie can have a familiar gunslinger on hand when duty calls. But this entire set-up is disposable in light of the intriguing dynamic shared by an entirely different set of survivors across town.
Oddly enough, the marketing materials for “Election Year” only play up the movie’s two prominent white characters rather than the far more engaging people of color whose stories offer greater appeal. Chief among them is a proud corner store owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson) who guards his pride and joy from the rooftop alongside his young Mexican immigrant protege (JJ Soria). Rounding out their trio, former bad girl Dawn (Betty Gabriel) now prowls the streets in an armored vehicle helping those in need.
She’s the movie’s chief highlight: Gabriel exudes a badass femme fatale vibe that in a better world might make her an ideal candidate for a female Bond franchise. Instead, she’s stuck in a messy B-movie and making the best of it, running down would-be murderers and firing off her shotgun with a ferocious gaze.
Whenever this trio dominates the proceedings, “Election Year” maintains some appeal for the way it epitomizes what it means to fight through a Trump-like threat to racial equality. To DeMonaco’s credit, he lets the movie’s black characters stand tall and take back the night. Even the cheesiest showdowns carry the whiff of a social conscience.
At the same time, “Election Year” attempts to ground its best characters in some modicum of working class realism. Whereas “The Purge: Anarchy” had Michael K. Williams in “The Purge: Anarchy” running a Black Panther-like movement against militarized thugs, “Election Year” has a gun-toting deli owner. But it doesn’t pit him against much of a threat.
“Election Year” mostly sets up psychopaths and then does nothing with them. One blood-soaked teen taunts Joe from the streets (“Gimme my candy bar, cocksucker!”). Blunt showdowns end without much in the way of retribution. Eventually, everyone converges at a church to fire endless rounds at screaming victims (poor timing, this one). It’s there that the good guys come across a roomful of eerie one-percenters literally worshipping at the alter of the purge, but “Election Year” never digs enough into the nature of their mania to give it much substance. It’s just an empty scare tactic: angry people yelling in a church in affirmation of awful things. And scene.
Meanwhile, Mitchell — a talented actress who doesn’t land enough lead roles — has little to do beyond idealistically pleading her case for non-violent tactics in a situation that demands exactly that. For the most part, her plea falls on deaf ears, as “Election Year” goes through the motions of mindless killing. At this point, these gritty showdowns may as well be directed by an algorithm. Whether it’s Grillo flinging a tiny blade at one scowling hit man (Terry Serpico) or mounds of other characters unleashing multiple rounds at once, “Election Year” never matches its inventive concept with equally engaging thrills.
If “Election Year” belongs to its black characters, it nevertheless fails to develop their purpose as anything more than supporting roles. “These are my white people,” Joe asserts at one point, delivering a culturally-weighted line that immediately suggests “Election Year” has more on its mind. But it’s ultimately too busy rushing to the next blaring encounter to both unpacking its deeper implications.
While “The Purge: Anarchy” was surprisingly enjoyable, it should come as no great surprise that “Election Year” does little more than devolve into run-and-gun showdowns and howling lunatics. That’s especially unfortunate considering the grand tradition of allegorical horror movies that have something real to say about the world. (George A. Romero and Carpenter are some of the great political commentators of the last century, and this one needs them badly.)
In theory, “Election Year” offers a form of catharsis from contemporary anxieties by turning them into entertainment. Instead, this latest entry in a ridiculous franchise has become a victim of its own sick joke.
“The Purge: Election Year” opens nationwide on Friday.