THE FIRST PURGE ½
R, 97 mins.
2018, R, 97 mins.
Y'lan Noel as Dmitri / Lex Scott Davis as Nya / Joivan Wade as Isaiah / Mugga as Dolores / Patch Darragh as Arlo Sabian / Marisa Tomei as Dr. Updale / Rotimi Paul as Skeletor
Directed by Gerard McMurray / Written by James DeMonaco
I will never feel bad - nor will I ever apologize - for enjoying a majority of THE PURGE movies.
No one should
ever confuse them with high art. They're
sleazy B-grade trash, but they're - in reasonable dosages - enjoyable and
competently made trash. Whereas
the first film in writer/director James DeMonaco's dystopian sci-fi horror
thriller series sort of stumbled out of the blocks as a semi-serious
social/political satire crossed morphed with a home invasion thriller, its
two follow-up entries, 2014's THE
PURGE: ANARCHY and 2016's THE
PURGE ELECTION YEAR enthusiastically and unpretentiously embraced
their lurid grindhouse roots. It
can be easily said that THE PURGE entries as a whole perhaps hammer home
their themes with the subtlety of a flying mallet, but as pieces of
no-nonsense and perversely watchable exploitation cinema, there's no
denying their twisted efficiency.
This brings me to
the fourth film in THE PURGE cinematic universe, the somewhat blandly
titled THE FIRST PURGE, which, you guessed it, is not a continuation of
the storyline of ELECTION YEAR, but rather a prequel to the entire
franchise that tries to provide some expositional details as to how this
wacky and oppressively violent future world came to be.
The central premise of these films is that, with the election of a
democracy crushing New Founding Fathers of America political party in the
not-too-distant future, an annual 12 hour event know as "The
Purge" occurs during one day and one very specific six hour period,
during which time all crime in the U.S. - including murder - is declared
legal. The motives of the
event in question are to allow for society to cleanse themselves of their
violent tendencies by acting upon them.
I've always found the core concept of THE PURGE films to be
endlessly fascinating, and one ripe for scathing satire and commentary
(the latter elements that all of these films have struggled with), and THE
FIRST PURGE sort of fails at probing into the explanation of how such an
event began, but for those series fans seeking another fairly well oiled
dosage of unabashedly violent and ape-shit crazy mayhem, there's ample
here to appreciate.
The film begins
in the present and shows how the United States ushers in the election of
the vile and despotic New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA), which
publicly maintain a Donald Trumpian "Make America Great Again"
mantra, but deep down want to curtail massive overpopulation and
increasing domestic debt by, well, thinning the herd of all low income
minorities and undesirables. Via
a concept proposed by behavioral psychologist Dr. Updale (a mostly
confused and utterly miscast Marisa Tomei) about staging an
"event" that would give Amercans unlawful freedoms for a brief
period to release their angst, the NFFA establishes a limited ranged
experiment known as..."The Experiment"...that will be
tested on the geographically isolated Staten Island.
The Experiment is essentially what would become colloquially known
as The Purge, but this film reveals that it all started by paying the most
economically impoverished people of the island $5000 to participate, all
of whom are fitted with special contact lens cameras that televise their
comings and goings to researchers and the NFFA to see whether or not this
experiment should be spread nationally.
(and cuing ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT narrator voice): It does.
Of course, they
are many people that live on Stanton Island that smell a rat and
vehemently protest the government's plan for the state sponsored
legalization of murder, whereas others that are not being paid to
participate are just trying to desperately secure themselves in their
homes and pray for the best. As
low income residents prepare for hell on earth to happen, one local drug
kingpin, Dimitri (Y'lan Noel), hopes to keep his gang quiet during the
event to come. Other
citizens, like Isaiah (Jovian Wade), want to use The Purge to seek revenge
on a local crackhead amusingly named Skeletor (Rotmi Paul), a man so
deliriously unhinged that he needs a straight jacket more than a legal
right to kill. Isaiah's
sister, Nya (Lex Scott Davis), an anti-Purge advocate, tries to ensure
that her family and friends remain safe from the carnage to come.
Unfortunately for the NFFA, the experiment doesn't go smoothly at
first, much to their chagrin, which leads to them utilizing outside forces
and extreme measures to make the first Purge a success...no matter what
There are aspects
of THE FIRST PURGE - much like the two previous entries - that maintain a
level of low rent and luridly old fashioned John Carpenter-ian thrills;
this new film spares no expense in terms of being an affectionately crazy
throwback picture. Whereas the last two PURGE movies were pure exploitation, THE
FIRST PURGE sort of compellingly morphs into a Blaxploitation effort in
terms of focusing on a class and racial makeup to how The Purge all began.
There's something rather unnerving about how the fascist regime
that is the NFFA - rich and powerful white supremacists - systematically
use their initial Purge experiment to oppress minorities by coercing them
with financial aid to kill each other, which they hope, in turn, will make
America a more agreeably cleansed culture.
I think it comes as no surprise that Noel's drug lord will
unavoidably lead an urban army to combat and decimate the NFFA's minions
that they send in to help kick-start the inaugural Purge - which includes
KKK members and despotic mercenaries dressed like Nazi leaders.
There are some giddy thrills in seeing Dimitri and his clan mowing
down racist NFFA slimeballs without mercy to defend their turf and ensure
that the genocide of their people doesn't happen.
Again, the race politics of this film lacks restraint and is
woefully simplistic (white leaders = bad, black people in the hood
= heroes), yet I can understand the undeniable appeal of seeing
government sponsored hate mongers being sent in to enact population
control of minorities...being murder-death-killed by said minorities.
I only wished THE
FIRST PURGE went into more intriguing detail regarding Dr. Updale's
radical philosophy on people being granted to freedom to rob, rape, and
kill for a short period and how that morphed into The Purge itself.
I would have welcomed a more careful construction and backstory to
the whole series of events that brought a once democratic America to this
state, but James DeMonaco's screenplay (he has penned all of the films in
this series) seems disinterested in thoroughly exploring them and instead
is more motivated to get viewers to the mass gore and bloodshed that has
typified these films. It's
not helped by the fact that Tomei's character is horribly underwritten,
not to mention that her own motives for the experiment seem paper thin and
flimsy at best (you never once believe in this character's belief of the
moral righteousness of The Purge). I
think there is an inherent danger to making these film more solemn minded
than they need to be, but THE FIRST PURGE seems to lack any compelling
layers as an effective pre-amble to the events of the initial PURGE film.
And the heavy
handedness that DeMonaco's takes with tapping into some very on-the-nose
themes of the rise of dictatorial powers in American, the NRA sponsoring
of said powers, the eroding of freedoms of the press, and the eradication
of the lower class have some very obvious real world parallels, but THE
FIRST PURGE doesn't have the intellectual faculties and patience to
explore them in meaningful ways. Much
like the franchise introductory chapter, THE FIRST PURGE wants to have its
cake and eat it too in terms of wanting to be a piece of meaningful and
relevant socio-political commentary that holds up a mirror to our own
uncertain times while also wanting to be a savagely violent
horror-thriller that sensationalizes the carnage its speaking out against. Ultimately speaking, THE FIRST PURGE really doesn't bring
much new to the table in this series, nor does it revitalize it in any
sizeable manner. It's a
franchise entry on, more or less, pure auto-pilot.
Still, director Gerard McMurray (replacing DeMonaco behind the camera for the first time in the franchise) brings out some truly inspired moments of well oiled and rough and rugged action throughout (the climax in particular is intensely realized and unashamedly bombastic, even when it throws reality out the window and has you rolling your eyes on more than one occasion). I also think that some of the individual performances are thanklessly good, like the charismatic turn by Y'lan Noel, who brings a real screen presence and has a future as an action star. And, I gotta admit, there were times when I just found myself embracing and enjoying the rampant perversity of the whole enterprise. I've been critically easy on THE PURGE series as a whole, but even now I find myself in a difficult place to recommend THE FIRST PURGE as a must-see installment worthy of a costly theatrical screening...but I didn't loathe it. The film has an embarrassment of sinful pleasures. This prequel is unhealthy junk...and it knows it's unhealthy junk...and I know it's unhealthy junk...and I liked some of its junkiness.
Two and a half stars seems like a fair and healthy compromise score for me