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Pulp gets political, and messy, in 'The Purge: Election Year'

Pulp gets political, and messy, in 'The Purge: Election Year'
Edwin Hodge, left, and Frank Grillo in "The Purge: Election Year." (Michele K. Short / Universal Studios)

The end is nigh in "The Purge: Election Year." Not the end of the world as we know it (another apocalypse? Ho-hum), but possibly the end of the Purge itself — that cruel annual rite that, for one night only, allows all Americans to vent their bloodlust in the name of continued national health and prosperity. Pitting a heroic female presidential hopeful against a shadowy cabal of gun-toting one-percenters, this is a crudely opportunistic, engrossingly pulpy extension of a franchise that, as ludicrous as its setup has always been, seems increasingly in step with the violent absurdity of the times. That much is clear from the new movie's cutthroat political rhetoric, as well as a ghastly scene of a church being peppered with bullets.

An image like that can't help but give you pause, as it was clearly designed to do. Even more than in the series' first two films, the writer-director James DeMonaco wields his satirical ideas and topical reference points with a recklessness that similarly informs his murkily shot scenes of knife-to-knife combat and sniper fire. At times the experience of watching "Election Year" is a bit like scanning a few years' worth of alarming headlines while someone sets off firecrackers under your desk. Black Lives Matter, drone warfare, local protests, home-grown militias, predatory capitalism, the Florida electorate, pop pop, bang bang.

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In this frenzied B-thriller context, where thinking too much could easily get you killed, a hit-or-miss approach works better than you might expect. What once seemed like design weaknesses in DeMonaco's speculative fiction — the willful incoherence of his allegory and the scattershot quality of his satire — now feel like a natural extension of his schlock-and-awe sensibility. He isn't concocting an alternate reality so much as sending out crazy dispatches from our own, and he knows that a jab doesn't have to be subtle in order to land.

Watch the trailer for "The Purge: Election Year."

By now DeMonaco has also mastered a kind of quick, drive-by characterization, and here, against the backdrop of Washington, D.C., he erects an ensemble of straw people whose symbolic function can usually be summed up in a few sound bites. "The soul of our entire country is at stake," declares Sen. Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a presidential candidate who, apart from her cool blond demeanor, is too thinly sketched to bear much of a resemblance to Hillary Clinton. Smart and sympathetic if a bit bland, she seems to harbor no political agenda apart from her determination to abolish the Purge once and for all, having lost her entire family 18 years earlier in a killer's rampage.

Rather than running against an obvious Donald Trump stand-in (because some figures exist beyond the reach of parody), Roan must go head-to-head with a prominent member (played by a freaky Kyle Secor) of the New Founding Fathers of America, the evil government organization that initiated the Purge to begin with. (Any similarities between the NFFA and the NRA, which is name-dropped separately here, are probably not coincidental.) "I have had it with all these idealistic pigs!" one NFFA leader spits, directing his words squarely at the back row of the theater, even as he and his conspirators take aim at Roan when the next Purge Night commences.

Viewers who showed up for the first two movies will by now know the drill (and the rifle, and the machete, and the power saw). The first "Purge" (2013) was a cruddy but queasy-making home-invasion thriller that brought down the barricades shielding a family's McMansion and turned a homeless black man into a hero worthy of George Romero (an even more pronounced influence on the new film). The series quality kicked up a notch with "The Purge: Anarchy" (2014), a nightmarish urban shoot-'em-up that, with a nod in the direction of John Carpenter, broadened the allegory's scope and shifted its focus toward those on the margins of society — nonwhite, working-class citizens who were the real targets of the Purge's cleansing campaign all along.

That trend continues here with Joe Dixon (a wisecracking Mykelti Williamson), a hard-working deli owner who — with the help of his Mexican-born co-worker, Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), and his friend Laney (Betty Gabriel), a reformed gang member — must protect his uninsured business from a few girls gone wild. Led by a precocious young Purger (Brittany Mirabile, ferocious) who shows up in a blood-slicked pink tutu, these and other killers seem to have borrowed a few moves and accessories from George Miller's "Mad Max" movies and Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers" — a connection reinforced by a recent surge in "murder tourism," thanks to a wave of young Europeans who have flown in to join the guilt-free mayhem.

It's not long before Dixon's crew teams up with the imperiled senator and her personal bodyguard, Leo (the excellent Frank Grillo), who was first introduced shooting and slicing his way through "The Purge: Anarchy." The other recurring figure here is Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge), now a leader in the anti-Purge movement, whose own insurrectionist plot prompts some obligatory moral handwringing in the third act. "We can't be like them!" Roan pleads, but rest assured that "The Purge: Election Year" is never in danger of letting you confuse the haves with the have-nots.

"Is murder our new religion?" someone asks early on, and the question is made chillingly, ridiculously literal in a sequence involving a freaky-as-hell midnight mass— a savage spoof of gun-loving, God-fearing America, complete with psycho priests and weapons blessed with holy water. DeMonaco sets the stage with ghoulish delight, though here, as elsewhere, he has a hard time generating any actual tension, much less any real surprise over who will be left standing at movie's end. I wouldn't be the first to point out that this franchise gaudily exploits the violence that it claims to condemn, but there's a deeper hypocrisy here, one that binds the commercial logic of this Hollywood franchise to the moral bankruptcy of the Purge itself: So long as the right people wind up dead, why not keep it going?

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'The Purge: Election Year'

MPAA rating: R, for disturbing bloody language and strong violence

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Playing: In general release

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