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'The Purge: Election Year' Offers A Vote Of No Competence

The Purge: Election Year Michele K. Short/Michele K. Short/ Universal Studios hide caption

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Michele K. Short/Michele K. Short/ Universal Studios

The Purge: Election Year

Michele K. Short/Michele K. Short/ Universal Studios

The Purge series is all concept, no execution.

(Forgive the criminally tasteless pun; some brains never stop Purging.) The three films (The Purge (2013), The Purge: Anarchy (2014) and now The Purge: Election Year) come with a B-movie hook that's just the right amount of idiotic: a future U.S. government sanctions one annual night of crime with no repercussions, then waits for its citizens to kill each other. John Carpenter would have had a lot of fun with this. But he wouldn't have made a franchise this visually ugly and technically incompetent, with scenes of nothing but garish close-ups, ponderous dialogue, and stagnant momentum.

It's clear that James DeMonaco, the New Founding Father of the franchisehe wrote and directed all three Purge filmsdoesn't have the chops to make a great dystopian movie. But give him three tries, and he can at least figure out what that movie should be about. After the inert home-invasion action of the first film and the haphazard world-building of the second, DeMonaco has realized he can get better mileage by simply Purging our image of America itself.

This silly idea has become more relevant not because it's grown in intelligence, but because the news keeps giving reminders that our culture is already at its level. The Purge: Election Year is content to pick at a scab until it festers, to call out the uneasiness many of us now feel in our American skins. The film's tagline, "Keep America Great," will herald a gravy train of warped images, mashing together symbols from politics, religion, nationalism, and gun culture into a bubbling bloody smoothie of death.

Cleverest of the bunch is the group of foreigners embarking on a night of "murder tourism," letting out their violent, destructive urges the good ol' American way. We see them clad in patriotic costumes (Uncle Sam, Lady Liberty) while wielding assault rifles and chainsaws. There are also stacks of dead bodies at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, discussions of "Purge Insurance" for small businesses, and a psychotic schoolgirl (Brittany Mirabile) who just killed her parents and is willing to murder a total stranger over a candy bar. And the climax? My friends, the climax is set at a church's midnight "Purge Mass" where a bloodthirsty pastor carts out ritual sacrifices before the Virgin Mary and instructs his congregants to "Purge and Purify."

There's very little continuity between films, all the better for keeping this series going beyond the wills of actor contracts. We get one significant returning face, Frank Grillo's pointy-jawed grimacing good guy Leo, now working security detail for a charismatic young senator (Elizabeth Mitchell) who's campaigning for President on the promise of eliminating the signature orgy of legalized madness. Come Purge night, this makes the senator the target of a government conspiracythough who needs conspiracies in a world where everyone's OK with murdering each other for sport?

Anyway, there are mercenaries after the politician, and these baddies are helpful enough to sew swastikas, Confederate flags, and "White Power" badges onto their military-grade uniforms. On the run through the streets of Future Washington, D.C. (actually Present-Day Rhode Island), the two heroes make alliances with a struggling deli owner (Mykelti Williamson, American Dreamin' since he was Bubba in Forrest Gump); his loyal Mexican employee (Joseph Julian Soria); and a former Purge superstar (Betty Gabriel) who now drives an armored medical van to aid victims. For once, the racial makeup of a horror movie doesn't doom every character of color, and we get treated to lines like, "It's Purge Night, you don't sneak up on black people!"

Such pockets ofwell, not intelligence exactly, but at least sustenance — pop up now and again throughout Election Year's bloated 105-minute runtime. (Like a real election year, this movie is too long and appeals to our baser instincts.) The moments burn bright but dissipate quickly, because without a steady hand to guide them into coherent moviemaking they are but mere blips on a Purger's radar. If we continue to vote this franchise into the position of cultural relevance, it might be time to start demanding more from our cinematic elected officials.

Correction July 2, 2016

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly said the first film in the Purge series was released in 2010. In fact, it was released in 2013.