'With gun violence a nightly topic on the news, I worried I was in no place to enjoy "The Purge: Election Year's" brand of vicarious anarchy. I mean, if the action-comedy "Central Intelligence" made me squirm, what hopes did I have coming into a movie all about Americans slaughtering each other in a grim free-for-all? But it turns out the content of the third "Purge" installment is no problem, because the movie is too heartless to have any emotional impact.
Frank Grillo, the scowling antihero of "The Purge: Anarchy," reprises his role as Sergeant, who's now the head of security for Sen. Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a presidential hopeful stumping to end The Purge. When an armed-to-the-teeth squad of white supremacists comes banging down her door on Purge night, the sergeant and the senator are pitched out into the streets of Washington, D.C., where they'll have to depend on the kindness of the middle class to survive.
The politics of "The Purge: Election Year" are as subtle as the neo-Nazi symbols plastered over the bad guys' body armor. (As if the bright red swastika weren't enough, they all wear embroidered patches that read "White Power.") The all-white, mostly male New Founding Fathers of America use The Purge to wipe out people in low-income housing or on welfare. They employ hate groups to do their dirty work, and speak fervently about their Christian faith and the need to "purify" our nation.
Meanwhile, Independent candidate Senator Roan calls out the NRA for spurring national bloodlust to line its own pockets, and declares she speaks for the 99 percent who don't Purge. Helping her and Sergeant weave through the nightmarish labyrinth to sunrise and survival are a wise-cracking deli owner, a hardworking Mexican immigrant, and a band of black activists who hide the homeless from the NFFA's slaughtering squads.
And yet the film is in conflict with itself. James DeMonaco, who has written and directed each "Purge" installment, obviously wants the audience to side with Roan and her mission to bring down this grim American tradition. However, the filmmaker revels in the ghoulish glamor of those who Purge, capturing their murderous mayhem and creepy chic costumes with leering slo-mo and lingering close-ups of blood-sprayed smiles, gun-strapped but otherwise bare thighs, and rhinestone-studded assault rifles. Sequences involving entitled and enraged teenagers blasting Miley Cyrus's "Party in the U.S.A." while dancing in tutus and brandishing weapons are disturbing and mesmerizing, reminiscent of Harmony Korine's neon nightmare "Spring Breakers." Yet these scenes come from a jarringly different point of view than the bulk of the film. And unfortunately, when we're not witnessing the eccentric murder methods of carnage-craving fashionistas, we're forced to trudge through clunky dialogue and eye roll-inducing performances of the good guys.
Don't get me wrong: Grillo is great. The biggest star the film has to offer knows exactly how to spit out his occasional lines to create a tough yet charismatic hero. With a steely gaze and smirk that signals danger, Betty Grabriel makes a promising addition to the expanding franchise as a former Purger turned triage volunteer. But Michael Kenneth Williams, who played the poetic Purge disrupter Carmelo Jones, is sorely missed this go 'round. Stepping in for him is Edwin Hodge, promoted from vicious "The Purge: Anarchy" rando to the head of the Purge resistance. He grimaces well, but just like puppy-eyed Joseph Julian Soria, who plays a politically minded deli worker, his performance is overshadowed by Grillo's star power and the general awfulness of the ensemble.
Best known for playing the shrimp-obsessed Bubba in "Forrest Gump," Mykelti Williamson leans hard into his comic-relief role as a deli owner who feels plucked from an outdated sitcom, with groan-inducing punch lines offering diminishing returns. But the Razzie for Worst Performance goes to Elizabeth Mitchell. Lacking in gravitas, she delivers every line as if it's being fed to her through an earpiece. At no point does her senator feel like the political game-changer who could truly topple this ingrained American "right."
For all its flaws, there are moments where "The Purge: Election Year" is thrilling. Unfortunately, those are few and far between. The shocks of The Purge have grown stale, and the "edginess" feels forced and underwhelming, with characters firing the f-bombs and slurs with the awkward excitement of a 12-year-old trying out a curse word for the first time.
This franchise has hit a pivotal point. The concept of "The Purge" movies has always been richer than the content. Although the sequels have relished in world-building, DeMonaco has not grown enough as a filmmaker to make this installment shine. If Blumhouse Productions is going to continue to Purge, it needs a stronger, more daring writer and director leading the charge.
"The Purge" opens Friday nationwide.