I had really high hopes for The Purge: Election Year.
While the first Purge film was definitely flawed, it still had an interesting and thought-provoking premise behind it. What would we do, the film forced us to ask, if we could do anything we wanted to for one night out of the year? Would you hide in your house or would you go out and randomly kill people? Yes, The Purge had its flaws but it was an interesting film.
And then, in 2014, The Purge: Anarchy was released. Anarchy was one of the best films of 2014 (a film that saw no shortage of great films). It was a big, loud, and over-the-top masterpiece of the pulp imagination, one that managed to be as thought-provoking as the first film while also keeping audiences entertained. It was a political movie, perhaps one of the most overtly political to be released over the past ten years. And yet, it was also amazingly entertaining. By further exploring the type of society that would come up with something like an annual Purge, Anarchy forced audiences to think even as it gave them reasons to cheer and hiss. For many viewers, it also served as an introduction to a tough and grizzled actor named Frank Grillo. In the role of the enigmatic but ultimately good-hearted Leo Barnes, Frank Grillo gave an outstanding performance.
Well, The Purge: Election Year continues its exploration of the culture behind the Purge. And Frank Grillo is back as Leo. It should be said that, just as he did in Anarchy, Grillo supplies Election Year with some of its best moments. Much like Clint Eastwood, Grillo can communicate an entire backstory just be squinting his eyes.
But overall, Election Year is a disappointment. As I watched it, I found myself wondering if maybe director James DeMonaco should have quit when he was ahead and ended the series with Anarchy. Anarchy pushed the idea behind The Purge about as far as it could go and it is perhaps not surprising that Election Year often feels like a rehash that was constructed out of leftovers.
Election Year finds Leo working as head of security for U.S. Sen. Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell). Charlie, who saw her family massacred during an earlier purge, is running for President on an anti-Purge platform and it appears that she’s about to overtake the candidate of the New Founding Fathers, the Rev. Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor). The New Founding Fathers decide that the best way to take care of Charlie would be to assassinate her on Purge Night. They announce that, for the first time since the Purge began, government leaders will no longer be granted immunity.
In short, anyone can be killed!
Leo’s idea is for Charlie to stay inside during Purge Night but, if that happened, there wouldn’t be a movie. Naturally, Leo and Charlie eventually end up on the streets and they get to witness a few surreal and violent moments, none of which have quite the impact of anything we previously saw in Anarchy. They are given some assistance by a deli owner (Mykleti Williamson) and, naturally, they meet up with rebel leader Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge). Just like in the previous film, Leo is eventually forced to decide between purging and showing mercy.
And it’s really never that interesting. The whole film just falls flat. The first two Purge film worked because they convinced you that something like The Purge could actually happen. When, at the end of Anarchy, Leo chose not to murder someone, it felt like a great moment because you truly believed that Leo could have gotten away with murder if he wanted to. But Election Day is never convinces you that you’re watching anything more than a standard issue sequel. With the exception of Frank Grillo and Kyle Secor (more about him in a moment), none of the actors are particularly memorable or believable. In fact, Mykelti Williamson gives a performance that is almost amazingly bad.
I think a huge part of the problem is that the character of Charlie is never credible. Elizabeth Mitchell is a good actress and has appeared in some of my favorite TV shows (she was Juliet on Lost, for instance) but you never believe that she’s a dynamic senator who is destined to save America from itself. Every character in the film has at least one moment in which he or she is required to talk about how much they love Charlie. The film spends so much time worshipping her that it apparently forgot to make her believable.
(It’s hard not to compare Election Year to Anarchy. Anarchy advocated revolution. Election Year argues that the system will eventually correct itself, going so far as to present the revolutionaries as almost being villains because they’re not properly deferential to a wealthy white liberal.)
However, I do have to say that Election Year is occasionally elevated by the thoroughly over-the-top performance of an actor named Kyle Secor. It’s almost as if Secor alone understood that Election Year needed a jolt of pure adrenaline and, at the end of the film, he goes out of his way to provide it. He bulges his eyes. He shrieks out his lines. His entire body shakes and it’s damn near brilliant. He’s a lot of fun and his performance is probably the most entertaining thing about Election Year.
Undoubtedly, there will eventually be a sequel to Election Year. Hopefully, it’ll be an improvement.