'The Purge: Election Year': Film Review

A speculative but frightening political scenario.

Frank Grillo returns as a hardened security expert protecting Elizabeth Mitchell’s presidential candidate in this third installment of the Universal franchise.

Arriving in quick succession, The Purge (2013) and follow-up The Purge: Anarchy (2014) introduced audiences to a near-future nation governed by the “New Founding Fathers of America,” a political party that oversees a violent annual social ritual with the stated goal of lowering the nation’s overall crime rate. For 12 hours during a single night every year, the NFFA administration permits citizens to commit almost any type of crime, including murder, without fear of prosecution or reprisal.

Writer-director James DeMonaco’s concept quickly found favor with audiences, who rewarded Universal with two straight hits, inspiring the current installment, The Purge: Election Year. The potential success of this third iteration may not rely so much on the thriller franchise’s brand identity as it does on the relatability of the premise, which posits that a presidential contest will determine the ongoing viability of the Purge. Unless they’re unusually prescient, it’s unlikely that the filmmakers would have clearly foreseen the intensity of current political debate, although the pic’s unexpected alignment with this year’s especially fractious electoral cycle may turn out to be a profitable draw in an opening-weekend field largely devoid of comparable competition.

With a presidential election looming, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) has relocated from Los Angeles after surviving Purge night two years prior in order to head up the Washington security detail for Sen. Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a candidate running against the NFFA who’s determined to eliminate the Purge from American culture after 25 annual repetitions of ritual violence. Since her campaign overlaps with the recurring night of mayhem, Barnes’ prior experience with the event is clearly an advantage, but even his hardened tactical experience falters when an assassination attempt on Roan forces them out on the street in the middle of the Purge, when most of the city is hunkering down at home.

Attempting to dodge random gangs of attackers as an expert kill team closely tracks them, Barnes and Roan take shelter in a convenience store far removed from the glamor of Capitol Hill, where African-American owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) is attempting to protect his livelihood with the support of his loyal immigrant employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria). When a group of murderous marauders besieges the store, Joe calls on his close friend Laney (Betty Gabriel) to help them escape in her rescue van that patrols the neighborhood providing medical assistance to Purge victims. Laney delivers them to an underground bunker where political firebrand Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge) is coordinating a conspiracy plot of his own that threatens to trap Roan and Barnes in an escalating conflict between the NFFA and Bishop’s radical followers.

Franchise originator DeMonaco’s well-structured script isn’t particularly subtle about arraying these factions against one another in a manner that unabashedly reveals its B-thriller origins. Although the minimal dimensionality of the competing motivations on display doesn’t contribute much to complex character development, at least the rivalries are assertively expressed. Social conflicts also are clearly articulated and while some fairly unconvincing theories are tossed out in frequent debates concerning the underlying purpose of the Purge, they mostly remain within the limits of the film’s fundamental themes of exploitation and disenfranchisement.

Grillo brings a reassuring gravitas to the role of Barnes that was too often missing in Anarchy, as he focuses his visceral reactions on his mission to protect the senator at any cost. Grillo’s intensity saps some of the momentum from Mitchell’s performance, however, as she’s repeatedly called upon to voice political platitudes rather than dig too deeply into her personal reasons for opposing the Purge. Williamson, Gabriel and Soria form a formidable supporting trio, with Gabriel especially adept at demonstrating her character’s unique badassery.

DeMonaco has further upped his game with the third installment by working closely with franchise cinematographer Jacques Jouffret to design rewardingly more complex action sequences and well-focused set pieces that are both efficiently executed and visually engaging.

Distributor: Universal
Production companies: Blumhouse Productions, Platinum Dunes, Why Not Productions
Cast: Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson, Edwin Hodge, Betty Gabriel, Joseph Julian Soria
Director-writer: James DeMonaco
Producers: Jason Blum, Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Sebastien K. Lemercier
Executive producers: Luc Etienne, Jeanette Volturno, Couper Samuelson
Director of photography: Jacques Jouffret
Production designer: Sharon Lomofsky
Costume designer: Elisabeth Vastola
Editor: Todd E. Miller
Music: Nathan Whitehead
Casting director: Terri Taylor

Rated R, 105 minutes