Can you make a film that criticizes gun violence in America while also reveling in a relentless, gory orgy of gun violence, knife violence, chain-saw violence, and ax violence?
That's the plight of the Purge franchise, an auteurish series of hyper-violent, dystopian thrillers from writer-director James DeMonaco (The Negotiator, Skinwalkers) now in its third installment with The Purge: Election Year.
The premise and the basic story line are familiar: Set in the near future, the Purge movies concern an America where once a year, for 12 hours, citizens get to let off steam by committing any crime - including murder - without fear of prosecution.
It's a nifty little law that saves the nation health-care and welfare costs: Since rich folks can protect themselves, the victims tend to be the poor, the weak, and the marginalized.
Each film stages a gladiatorial battle pitting a ragtag group of working-class characters, usually of color, against the gray white men who run the country. It's not the most sophisticated social satire, but the movies do tap into the growing discontent over the income gap and the prevailing sense that the rich play by a different set of rules.
Frank Grillo returns as Leo Barnes, a former police officer who saved a band of folks from predators in the second film. Barnes has landed a job as the security chief for U.S. senator and presidential candidate Charlene Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), the only politician in America who wants the purge law to be repealed.
Needless to say, her opponent, Minister Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor) has hatched a plan to assassinate her on purge night.
The film costars Mykelti Williamson as Joe Dixon, a struggling deli owner who teams up with friend and employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) to defend his business from the hordes. Betty Gabriel plays a neighborhood activist who uses a makeshift ambulance to help the injured.
The Purge: Election Year tries to show that what counts isn't firepower but compassion, not egoism but community.
But frankly, it can't help but shoot itself in the foot: The violence is too tantalizing, too stylized, too fetishistic - the film features killers dressed in fanciful Halloween costumes who dance and sing as they dismember people.
That's what wins out in the end.
When Barnes and Dixon got around to shooting some of the villains, the audience at a packed preview screening exploded in applause.
It was purge night for them too.
The Purge: Election Year
2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by James DeMonaco. With Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson, Joseph Julian Soria, Kyle Secor. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.
Parent's guide: R (disturbing bloody violence profanity).
Playing at: Area theaters.