Writer/director James DeMonaco stumbled into a box-office goldmine with his 2013 film The Purge. The $3 million horror film, set in an America where there’s an annual 12-hour period when all crimes — including murder — are legal, raked in more than $64 million.
That can only mean one thing: sequels. But DeMonaco hasn’t been content just to reheat the original premise, in which a family is terrorized at home.
He opened up the universe, making it more pointedly sociopolitical in The Purge: Anarchy two years ago, and that continues with the topical The Purge: Election Year, a darkly efficient and grimly entertaining thriller that may be as far as DeMonaco can push the concept.
Frank Grillo returns as Leo Barnes, though now he has relocated from L.A. to D.C. as head of security for a presidential candidate, Charlene “Charlie” Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), whose No. 1 priority is to end the purge.
But the ruling party, the New Founding Fathers of America, has no intention of letting this happen. There’s too much money to be made from the purge — from insurance companies to “murder tourists” coming from abroad to participate — and it’s a neat, legal way to get rid of society’s undesirables.
Meanwhile at street level, a social activist, Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge), has been leading a movement to stop the purge, too, claiming that it’s racist and classist. Not only that but he plans to assassinate top officials.
How convenient would it be for the ruling elite if both Charlie and Dante got offed in the purge? Of course, neither Leo nor a few heroic average citizens — including wisecracking convenience store owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), his get-tough friend Laney (Betty Gabriel), and his immigrant assistant Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), who all end up spending the purge night with Charlie and Dwayne — want to let that happen.
The Purge: Election Year then becomes a rather standard-issue though well-staged cat-and-mouse game with the political angle becoming less involving as the film goes on. Still, there are some clever moments — the shoplifting teenage girls turned would-be purge killers, the Russian murder tourists dressed as American icons — that give The Purge: Election Year an electric charge.
But the most chilling thing about the film is neither the violence nor the rather heavy-handed sociology, but how its nervous, paranoid mood mirrors our own.
The Purge: Election Year
☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: James DeMonaco
Cast: Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson
Rated: R (disturbing bloody violence, strong language)
Running time: 105 min.