It’s a great way to create a cause for fear and action, because pretty much everybody who partakes just wants to murder people. And right from the start, James DeMonaco’s screenplays included the very logical wrinkle of the rich and privileged in America having the means to sit out the annual Purge while the poor get screwed. Kinda like real life. For the fourth film in the franchise, The First Purge shows us this idea’s beginning, and fully throws subtlety out the window like so many stupid masks. We live in a time that totally lacks nuance, and the real state of the U.S.A. seems to be getting more Purge-like every day. The First Purge throws all of that stuff in, but doesn’t bother with any political allegory and pretty much just says exactly what’s been hinting at for three movies: the Purge is the end result of super right-wing racists given power to wipe out huge swaths of the poor and people of color in an annual display of violence masquerading as patriotism. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the movie isn’t in some ways fun to watch, though its choice of heroes leaves a little to be desired.
In the movie’s timeline, the newly elected New Founding Fathers of America party has just taken the White House and, using a scientific experiment derived by the painfully naive Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), have decided to use Staten Island, NY, as the site of the first experiment. Updale believes people need a release, and a night like this will help the population heal. Somehow. The NFFA stacks the deck in their own favor, however, as people who stay on the island during the Purge will get $5,000; if they actually partake in purging, and wear special glowing contact lenses that have cameras in them, they’ll get more money.
Most of the good people in the low-income communities want nothing to do with it, and elect to hole up in a church. These include Nya (Lex Scott Davis), a local community leader who’s the most vocal anti-Purger of the bunch, and her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) who secretly wants to participate in the Purge to get revenge on a truly terrifying crackhead maniac known only as Skeletor (Rotimi Paul). Another vehement non-purger is Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), a big-shot drug kingpin who used to be a nice boy but has become the kind of high-rolling flashy trafficker who exists in movies like this.
When the Purge begins, not a lot of murders take place, and in fact a lot of block parties occur, much to the chagrin of the NFFA, so they start sending in tactical units disguised as locals to incite violence. When Staten Island is fully under siege, it’s up to Dmitri and his heavily armed and somehow amazingly well trained drug dealers to take out the mercenaries and save Nya and the innocent people before the sun comes up.
Naturally, this movie sends some weird messages, especially that of having hardened criminals use automatic weapons to take out mercenaries. (It’s a good thing that drug king with illegal weapons was around, otherwise Staten Island would have really suffered.) There are also characters and threats that are effectively neutralized way too early, or not followed through with at all, making for some pretty imbalanced proceedings.
On the flip side of that, director Gerald McMurray gives us some genuinely creepy scenes in the beginning of the night, with those out for blood cackling through their glowing fluorescent eyes. Later in the movie, when Dmitri becomes John McClane, there are some legitimately fantastic action sequences, not least of which being a close-quarters fight in a stairwell as Dmitri attempts to get to Nya’s apartment on the 14th floor. It approaches The Raid-levels of fight brutality and choreography and it’s one of the most dynamically shot scenes of its kind in any American movie. Y’lan Noel needs to be a full-fledged action movie star this minute. I’ll wait.
Those few impressive sequences aside, The First Purge feels particularly weak in comparison to the first three films, and especially The Purge: Anarchy, which I still hold is the best of the series, and the one that this film seems to want to be the most. The beauty of the franchise up to now has been the way it depicts a smilingly racist, fascist society with something approaching artfulness; here they just hit you over the head with it. (They aren’t just mercenaries, they’re KKK mercenaries.) This one had the chance to be the most interesting with its depiction of society on the edge of collapse, but everything seems pretty fine prior to the Purge, so then all that’s left is transparent evil and scenes of extreme violence.
For all its usual unsubtleties, The Purge franchise mostly held a standard of storytelling that, sadly, The First Purge doesn’t meet. If you’re going to see The First Purge, do it for the last 20 minutes, which are pretty terrific. But you can pretty much wait for streaming for that.
2.5 out of 5
Images: Blumhouse/Platinum Dunes