Saturday, July 2, 2016

'The Purge: Election Year' review

The Purge franchise is a tough nut to crack. We're three films into this series now, and it's still grappling with its cinematic identity. The first film was a home invasion thriller, one that was mostly maligned by critics and audiences alike. With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 37% and a "C" Cinemascore, The Purge played like an ordinary horror film. One year later, director James DeMonaco expanded the horizons of the franchise with The Purge: Anarchy, taking the action to the streets and exploring the idea of a night where all crime (including murder) is legal. Critics were slightly more receptive to the political pulpfest. but I was none too pleased, awarding the film a "D" and placing it at #8 on my Worst Movies of 2014 list. You would think that I would have given up on the series at that point, and yet, I was moderately excited going into The Purge: Election Year. The film seemed to embrace the more grindhouse elements of the concept, while also playing with the topical political fears of our country.

And in that way, this film succeeds. The Purge: Election Year is the most satisfying blend of political sermonizing and pure pulp that we've seen yet. Yes, the concept and execution is still incredibly hypocritical- the filmmakers are still trying to condemn the violence, while also reveling in it. Simon Abrams at Roger tackles this well in his review, and it's an issue that I will continue to have with this series. It's similar to what The Hunger Games went through, but there's a sadism in the Purge franchise that feels wrong at times. But for some reason, while that contradiction hung over Anarchy and suffocated the film, I was somehow able to get over it for Election Year. DeMonaco has made a significantly better product this time around, and it's pretty entertaining for a chunk of its runtime.

While Election Year isn't plagued with as many moral issues, the film runs into another hurdle- it still isn't very good. Honestly, with a concept this fascinating, I'm frankly amazed that the filmmakers behind the Purge franchise can't manage to scrape together a decent story with believable dialogue. The characters are a slight improvement over the idiots who've occupied the screen in the past, but they can't carry a conversation to save their life, spouting off dialogue that is Star Wars prequel-level bad (only with more "F" bombs, because why not). Look- I know this is pulpy B-movie material. This franchise was never designed to win Oscars. But there's something so stilted, so choppy, and so depressingly mundane about the way that these films are told. The action is great, and there are some moments of searingly dark comedy, but there's no question about it- The Purge films need a new screenwriter.

Election Year picks up a few years after the last installment, and this time around, there's trouble brewing in America. After years of rule by the New Founding Fathers (NFFA), a new candidate, Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), has emerged with a distinctly anti-Purge message. Roan saw her family murdered in front of her on Purge night several years ago and insists that the yearly murder-fest is guilty of targeting minorities and the poor. Basically, she's dystopian Bernie Sanders. The NFFA (oh yeah, they're the Republicans by the way) feels threatened by the Senator (who is only a point behind in the polls at the start of the film), deciding to use the annual Purge to kill her and ensure that their candidate wins.

The NFFA-run government waives the protection for Senators and other US officials, allowing for their team of Neo-Nazi militia men to take out Roan. The Senator's main security officer, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), is scared by this new development, but does his best to prepare for Purge night. And yeah, things still go wrong. After a highly coordinated attack, Leo and Charlie will be left on the streets to fend for themselves. Thankfully, they'll have some help from Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), and Laney (Betty Gabriel), a trio of friends who are protecting Joe's shop before disaster strikes. With danger at every corner, they'll have to stay sharp and outsmart the NFFA to survive the night.

The movie spends much more time on those seemingly minor characters than you would think. Oddly enough, I would actually cite the character work as one of the strongest elements of this film. They build well over the course of the runtime, they have solidly-defined motivations, and in the end, you care if they live or die. So, mission accomplished. Even some of the actors manage to succeed despite not-so-great material. Frank Grillo is stolid and likable as usual, but the real standout here is Mykelti Williamson. He brings a lot of humor (this is a much funnier movie than the last installment) to Joe, and there were plenty of lines that destroyed my audience. The other players are fine as well, but Williamson steals nearly every scene in this film.

I also enjoyed how DeMonaco brought much more dark humor to this installment that we hadn't seen in the past. There's a particular scene near the end of the film that had me in stitches. It's not overt and it's not playing for laughs, but it's so over-the-top, gleefully delighting in its absolute skewering of the American climate. The first two acts of Election Year struggle to gain much momentum, but as the film enters its finale, something clicks for the filmmaking team. It finally becomes the sadistic satire that it has been clamoring to be for nearly the entirety of this trilogy, blending obvious social politics with gruesome violence. The third act of this film works like gangbusters, and there is a solid emotional payoff, along with some great action bits.

Unfortunately, Election Year still can't escape its awful start. Even with some smashing satirical politics this time out, the franchise can't get over the fact that everything feels forced, rushed, and awkward. It leads off with a glut of exposition before creating a never-ending stream of cringe-worthy moments that almost made me uncomfortable as a viewer. Not because they were violent or strange, but simply because everything felt so off. DeMonaco has an eye for visual chaos, and yet, he struggles to make any basic scenes compelling. This movie drags at the start, and after a while, the quick cuts between the intersecting stories becomes distracting.

Nonetheless, the greatest flaw is undoubtedly the screenplay, which is probably the worst of the year so far. You can practically see DeMonaco working to put all of the basic pieces of storytelling into this film. Everything is so predictable, and while they do succeed in spurts, there's something unshakably off about the way this story is told. The dialogue is built on one-liners and brief bursts of humor, along with an excessive amount of people telling other people to "Run! Faster! Faster!" Even in the more dramatic scenes, there's this weird feeling that the dialogue gives off. If this franchise does continue, DeMonaco is going to have to turn the screenwriting duties over to someone else, because the script almost dooms Election Year.

The final act of The Purge: Election Year was everything that I've been waiting for this franchise to become. It's searing, brutal, brilliant, darkly funny, and highly entertaining. This film does catch its stride eventually. It's just a long, tedious, awkward journey to get there. The juicy, pulpy center is there. And when you reach it and eat it, it's a delicious treat. But before you can do that, you're gonna have to eat some really nasty stuff that isn't all that fun. That's the best metaphor I could come up with for this film. Ultimately, it's an improvement on the last one. It has some fun moments. It has some not-so-fun moments. It gives me some hope for better movies in the future. But in the end, it's still a relative misfire.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                            (6.2/10)

Image Credits: Forbes, Variety, Joblo, Indiewire, Joblo

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