A major step backward in quality for a franchise that started horribly and slowly started to right the ship, The First Purge is a prequel that seeks to flesh out the origins of a futuristic American “holiday” where all crime (including murder) is legal for twelve hours. While such a prequel is loaded with possibilities for thrills and political subtext, The First Purge finds series writer and creator James DeMonaco retreating to a place of rote familiarity, brutality, and boredom. The First Purge should be the film in this franchise with the most to say about crumbling American empathy and morality. Instead, it’s just a flimsy, monotonous, plodding action flick with a well worn hook that’s grown exhausting.
It’s still not known exactly what year it is, but The New Founding Fathers – a third American political party designed as a counterpoint to traditional Republicans and Democrats following a staggering economic collapse – have won the presidency, and one of their first major acts is to create a single night of “societal catharsis” every year where everyday people are allowed to act on their basest, greediest, and most violent impulses. Unsure if The Purge is going to be a success or not, the government decides to hold a trial run of sorts in one location instead of unrolling the mayhem on a national level. Their choice based on demographic information and crime statistics is New York’s Staten Island. To ensure people participate and gather data for their experiment, the government sweetens the pot by offering $5,000 to anyone willing to stay behind on the night of The Purge, with bonuses available for anyone willing to participate in criminal activity. The progress will be monitored at a safe distance by Dr. Updale (Marissa Tomei), a behavioural scientist credited with creating the concept of The Purge, and the obviously crooked White House Chief-of-Staff (Patch Darragh), the latter of whom gets antsy and skittish when it turns out people would rather loot and party than commit murder.
So far, so good for returning screenwriter DeMonaco and director Gerard McMurray. The set-up looks to be in line with the franchise’s left leaning political stance to this point, but outside of the gambit designed to keep people on the island and underline the fact that marginalized people in desperate need of cash will be the ones most likely to get hurt, The First Purge shows the series setting into a familiar, lazy groove. While DeMonaco’s first film was a dreadfully idiotic and self-serious home invasion thriller, the second film, The Purge: Anarchy, abandoned the single setting for a more sprawling sort of survival thriller, and while it wasn’t a great film by any stretch, it was a marked improvement. The third and by far best film in the low-budget franchise, The Purge: Election Year, leaned heavily into the second entry’s best impulses, making for a satisfying, thoughtful, and entertaining action flick. But now with The First Purge, the outlines on DeMonaco’s template are now painfully apparent.
There’s a definite predictability to The First Purge that’s annoying and distracting from anything DeMonaco and McMurray are trying to say. Every Purge film begins with a simple question tied to the series’ tituar event: “What would [insert profession or status level here] do during The Purge?” The First Purge uses Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), a Superfly styled drug kingpin, to answer that question. Dmitri is one of those sympathetic drug dealers, if such a thing were to exist. He maintains a ruthless hold on his crew, demanding that none of them participate in the event because doing so could lead to them getting harmed and costing him money. While one might expect a career criminal to be thrilled at all the potential The Purge holds, Dmitri is suspicious of the event’s unpredictability. Throughout the course of the increasingly violent evening, Dmitri will have to become an unlikely hero, for his employees, vulnerable bystanders, and his activist ex-girlfriend (Lex Scott Davis) and her low-level dope slinging younger brother (Jovian Wade). Dmitri will have to protect his empire, and concurrently his ex will have to stop her younger brother from going after an over-the-top dangerous crackhead (Rotimi Paul, playing a villain named Skeletor with a Freddy Krueger-esque glove of hypodermic needles) out of revenge.
There will be a requisite thirty minutes of set-up, and character development will stop dead the moment the alarm sounds for The Purge. Everyone involved needs to get from Point A to Point B. They’ll do their things separately, they’ll all meet in the same place, there’ll be a giant blow off action sequence, and everything will end rather abruptly once the mayhem stops. Everything within this template – a bad guy learning to be a hero, a misguided young person, an iconic, quirky looking villain – has been recycled from the previous franchise entries, and instead of using them to further the film’s openly political messages, it’s clear early on that DeMonaco has run out of things to say and is instead content resting on his bloody laurels here. There’s nothing said in The First Purge that hasn’t been said in the previous films, and with the exception of employing a black director and a predominantly black cast (a move that should bring something to the table, but disappoints), nothing has changed. It’s just as implausible and plot-hole ridden as the other films, but now it’s also deathly slow and boring trying to wait for The First Purge to get anywhere remotely exciting or provocative.
McMurray isn’t up to the task of masking or amplifying DeMonaco’s ridiculous script, but I’m not sure if it’s entirely his fault. Large swaths of the film look to have been left on the editing room floor in favour of a leaner, meaner product, meaning other potential subplots involving a Latino woman and her young daughter (Luna Lauren Velez and Kristen Solis, respectively) and a tough talking church woman (Mugga) curiously go nowhere and add nothing. There are plenty of foreshadowing moments that don’t go anywhere (especially one moment that will be obvious to anyone that’s seen the trailer, which points emphatically to edits or retooling when compared to the final film). He doesn’t have a way with actors, with performances ranging from adequate to hammy to outright terrible. He’s also ill equipped when it comes to action sequences or jump scares, filming with cluttered frames, chaotic motion, and herky-jerky editing that sometimes makes it impossible to tell who’s punching or shooting who. He does manage one fun, albeit amateurish moment when Dmitri’s crew wipes out a band of mercenaries dressed as white supremacists in a smoke drenched sequence of carnage, but it feels more like something out of a ridiculous samurai movie, not a Purge film. Once the action starts, McMurray throws all logical believability out the window, and whatever was left of DeMonaco’s vision goes out with the bathwater.
Perhaps worst of all, the once novel message about political divisiveness and the rise of American extremism has become watered down in The First Purge, at a time in American culture when it should be getting stronger. Maybe the real world is just so awful that sitting through The First Purge now feels like a numb, been-there-done-that experience. There’s nothing in this film that’s scarier and more fraught than the world outside the theatre door, with the only difference being that the cinematic world has legalized bloodshed once a year. DeMonaco has a knack for coming up with scenes in his films that carry a pointed modern relevancy: arguing protestors that are obvious surrogates for MAGA and antifa, the eerie sight of Klansman leaving a church, another villain dressed both in blackface and an SS coat at the same time. But all of this has started to feel like hollow, empty provocation. For a while there, it looked like this franchise was one that wanted to wake the American people up while delivering cheap thrills at the same time. The First Purge is just a weak franchise film designed to play off American fears for the sake of making a quick buck. That’s capitalism at its “finest.”
The First Purge opens in theatres everywhere on Wednesday, July 4, 2018.
Check out the trailer for The First Purge:
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