I think the Purge series has found its level. After 2014's The Purge: Anarchy represented such a gigantic leap in quality over The Purge from the prior year, I had been willing to drift into some kind of small optimism that the second sequel might be another step up - undoubtedly a less dramatic one. But for the most part, The Purge: Election Year is right in line with its immediate predecessor. It's a little bit worse in some ways - this one is kinda pretty racist, mostly as a direct result of its attempts to be self-consciously anti-racist - and a bit better in a couple more ways. It's the most expensive Purge to date and the money shows up onscreen in the form of generally more polished cinematography, courtesy of three-time Purge director of photography Jacques Jouffret, and some inventively florid costumes designed by series newcomer Elisabeth Vastola. It's also there in the new film's generally grander sense of ambition; after two movies telling individual stories of survival, this one actually tries to dig into the implications and mechanics of the political system the series has established. And it would probably have been better that it not do so, since this opens that system up to a level of narrative scrutiny that it cannot begin to survive. But the attempt to expand things is appreciated.

The beating heart of the movie, however, could just about be cut out and inserted directly into Anarchy, and other than being confused as to why all the characters were suddenly different, I really don't think you could tell. Once again, the movie turns on a lengthy sequence that works its polyglot cast into a lather and dumps them out on the sodium vapor-lit streets of a city at night, devoid of people except for the roving gangs of killers dressed up in freaky costumes, and while it is good at building up a sense of sweaty, tired momentum, it is especially good at reminding you that The Warriors is much better.

Having spent two movies establishing its central hook, the franchise glosses through it pretty quickly this time: on 21 March, at 7:00 PM, all crime becomes legal for twelve hours in the United States, as the New Founding Fathers considers that allowing people to freely murder will ease off on the psychic pressure that would otherwise dominate them, and thus solve both the problems of crime and economic malaise. For reasons that have not been clarified in three pictures now, this somehow works. And once again, the question is unanswered: why only super-elaborate killing sprees? What about the people who patiently wait for 7:01 PM to start insider trading with the Asian markets, or who spend 12 hours stocking up on cocaine and methamphetamine for the next 364 days, or who shit in their neighbors' geraniums? Because then these wouldn't be horror-thrillers, I guess, though Election Year pretty much extinguishes even the fragments of horror that bubbled up only in the last act of Anarchy. Anyway, I would much rather watch a Purge anthology film that deals with the whole spectrum of non-violent crimes than see this exact same scenario play out again when they inevitably make another one of these, but Universal surprisingly hasn't called me in for a meeting yet.

This time around, the New Founding Fathers have a surprisingly robust challenger for the first time in their 25 years of power, in the form of Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), who was the sole survivor of a Purge Night massacre 18 years earlier and has built a life as a politician for the specific purpose of legislatively overturning the Purge. (Incidentally, this film presents a top-to-bottom retcon of the franchise's chronology, and to reality. Presidential elections happen in May now, and also not every four years. And yet despite all these changes, and the even more extraordinary change of instituting a state religion, the NFF has deemed it worth leaving the Electoral College in place). The Powers That Be are so scared of Roan's insurgent campaign that they've rescinded the one sacrosanct Purge Rule, that high-ranking government officials can't be killed, just to assassinate her. But her grizzled bodyguard Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), who suffered through the events of Anarchy without a character name, has all the street smarts and fearlessness to give her a fighting chance to make it through the night.

Elsewhere in Washington, D.C., a convenience store owner named Joe Dixon (Mykelti Wilson) readies himself to defend the store all night against the obnoxious little sociopath who tried to steal a candy bar from him, aided only by his trusty employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), and comforted by the presence of local bad-girl-turned-Good-Samaritan Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel), who spends the night finding victims and driving them to a neutral triage center, in which capacity she has some connection to radical anti-NFF media figure and resistance fighter Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge). It is no surprise when these storylines converge, and the film becomes peculiarly jejune about evoking Black Lives Matter in the course of a story where many black people put themselves in harm's way to protect a blonde white lady so saintly that in a hospital scene, she's light from above like a golden angel while the rest of the frame is dark.

I'll give Election Year this much: it's probably, or even certainly, the most interesting of the Purge movies to date, though Anarchy's social satire was far less muddled, and not only because the new film ties itself in knots about race. Writer-director James DeMonaco's script this time around (he's been the series' lead creator all along) is bursting at the edges with observations about how America's political scene works, and they suggest more than anything a work of Purge fan fiction written by an eighth-grader who just finished a Modern American History course. Did you know that sometimes, Florida is the key "swing state" that determines the presidential election, thanks to the nature of the Electoral College? I should fucking well hope you did, if you're old enough to buy tickets to an R-rated movie in the United States. There's nothing else that remedial, thank God. I do, though, have to question the internal integrity of a movie that tries to map modern American politics onto a fantasy world, necessitating an apparent authoritarian political party, with decidedly Nazi-ish iconography that still holds open elections which it seemingly does not tamper with or influence in any way, to such a degree that the opposition party holds a sizable chunk of the still-in-existence U.S. Congress.

As much as it's a failure of satire or social commentary in any meaningful way, and as much as it's such a burble of incoherent White Guilt balderdash trafficking in patently screenwritten African-American Vernacular English that it feels like Violence Porn Edition Crash, I gotta give Election Year its due. When all of that shuts up, and it's just about Barnes leading Roan, Dixon, and Marcos around the desolate war zone of Washington, the film's got the goods. The series trademarks of repulsively-lit streets populated by vaguely humanoid figures laughing and dancing like religious ecstatics are in fine form; while the climactic tableau isn't quite as gonzo in its conception as in the last film, it still presents a tense countdown staged with some fair verve. I am particularly enthusiastic about the barely-developed subplot about "murder tourism", in which Europeans and South Africans travel to America to have fun Purging; it's enough of an idea to support a movie on its own (alas, like every idea in the Purges, it's left to dry up on the vine), but the two major scenes it provides to this film are its highlight. The one that's been getting the most advertising time is the confrontation with a group of Russians chanting sing-song threats in a mixture of their own language and heavily-accented English, while dressed as nightmare versions of iconic American figures - a leering, demonic Uncle Sam, a neon-lit corpse-faced Statue of Liberty. And it's pretty great. But for my money, the really terrific scene precedes it by just a bit, as Barnes and Roan outrun a toy drone tricked out with garish colored lights, like a floating ball of toxic waste, as angry Russian is sworn out of apparently nowhere. It's confusing and chaotic and the harsh Slavic consonants add the texture of Eastern European dark fantasy to it, in a most appealing way.

Obviously the whole movie isn't anywhere close to that level, but I'm happy to have had even one A+ moment in a film as generally dotty as Election Year. At this point, I think we can safely assume that there's not likely to be a Purge movie to actually elucidate its setting in any clear manner that can be intelligibly applied to our own world, but as long as they manage to squeak out one really great setpiece every time... All I'm saying is that genre film fans know how to subsist on such a meager diet as that.

Reviews in this series
The Purge (DeMonaco, 2013)
The Purge: Anarchy (DeMonaco, 2014)
The Purge: Election Year (DeMonaco, 2016)
The First Purge (McMurray, 2018)