Courtesy of Universal Pictures/Blumhouse
Aren’t prequels supposed to give answers? Not leave you asking more questions?
That’s essentially what “The First Purge” is, a shamelessly violent macabre that details how the annual night of lawless mayhem (where for 12 hours all crime is legal - including murder) came to become a historic precedent. Without so much as tapping into the true crux of this national holiday.
Whereas the last entry “The Purge: Election Year” had something worth listening to (the main focal point being a politician fighting the system and vowing to end The Purge - something that legitimately made sense). “The First Purge” throws away any potential within the first twenty minutes, as it grudgingly pesters thru frame after frame, with headlines detailing how terrible the economy is, and that overpopulation has reached peaked numbers. This is the basic equivalent of lazy screenwriting and instead of delving into what truly makes this night tick, Director Gerard McMurray goes for bullets (lots and lots of bullets) instead of a captivating story.
As is the case with these films, they introduce a barrage of characters within the first ten minutes (don’t try and learn the names, they won’t be around long enough for you to care) and brushes over their arches swifty. Obviously taken place before the events of the previous three installments, we learn in a brief pre-credit sequence about how the government is toying with the idea of testing an annual night where folks can ‘release’ their inner demons, or the term purging.
You’ll be disappointed to find out the naming of the experiment comes from a psychotic mental patient named Skeletor (Rotimi Paul - in a franchise worst performance) - who has a deformed facial structure and unmitigated thirst for murder. Somehow, because they surveyed this one, very apparent, nut-case, that warrants our government (which are actually dubbed the ‘New Founding Fathers of America’ or NFFA) to test this theory - offering up thousands of dollars to impoverished families in lieu of their participation, even distributing contact lenses for willing patrons to record their activity (except I don’t think the filmmakers realized how silly the lenses would appear - these people look like robots).
Cut to Staten Island, the epicenter for the first experiment and we’re introduced to local drug lord Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) who's trying to keep a lid on his gang, while protecting an empire he’s created. Across town Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and Isaiah (Jovian Wade) are shacking up with locals at a nearby church, protesting the events taking place; “Pray not purge” reads on the sign outside. And on the technical aspect, a government official (Patch Darragh) and behavioral scientist (Marisa Tomei) watch from the sidelines documenting the events - hoping to report positive results to their superiors.
Yet, despite the outcry from the public and the media frenzy that circulates, the experiment proceeds as planned, cementing an ironic parable about our own future as a country. Some of the images (like a group of white supremacists going around town brutally murdering innocent people) hit really close to home. You could even argue that we might live in an age where this might actually happen. But “The First Purge” only touches the surface of those full-fledged ideas, opting for the easy way out, and only thinking audiences want to see bloody carnage.
Granted, some bloody carnage is warranted - (mad props to a “purge party” that goes south very quick in the films only inspired sequence) - yet by the time the credits start to roll, you’ll feel defeated by the amount of perforated ammunition and machetes used to slay people. I hate to use the term overkill ….
At one point, Tomei’s character says the line “Science doesn’t obey the laws of politics” and I chuckled, because “The First Purge” actually wants to be taken as a serious film. Except this film is only schlock value without any taste or warranted violence. Plus, there’s so much going on character wise, you won’t have time to take it seriously. Perhaps I’m asking too much of a franchise that is simplistic in nature, but after the smart take in “Election Year” I felt that maybe these filmmakers were touching the surface of something decent.
It’s a shame, because the whole concept behind this night has potential, and it frustrates me that “The Purge” can never find the correct cinematic footprint. Enlisting fine actors to tell your story is one thing, having a narrative worth caring about is entirely different.