Director: Gerard McMurray
Notable Cast: Y’Lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Mugga, Christian Robinson, Lauren Velez, Kristen Solis, Marisa Tomei, Patch Darragh, Maria Rivera, Chyna Layne, Siya, Melonie Diaz, Mo McRae, Steve Harris
The Purge franchise, for all of its faults and flaws, remains one of the more intriguing genre series to come out in the last handful of years. It had a very silly (and quite frankly, awful) first entry, but its surprise box office success allowed writer and director James DeMonaco to embrace the outlandish socio-political commentary with a vigor that made the following two sequels, Anarchy and Election Year, genre pleasures for many fans. Love them or hate them, they made money and DeMonaco did an admirable job at delivering fun genre action while adding in a less than subtle commentary about the current state of politics in doing so. The problem that came to be is that the third film, Election Year, essentially wrapped up the series leaving a bit of room for expansion, but hardly paved the way for a full follow up. Thus, we got The First Purge, a prequel about the first ‘experiment’ on Staten Island that would allow the New Founding Fathers the information to push the Purge to the full country.
|Some of the symbolism is a bit more subtle, the rest is a hammer to the face.|
Like with many prequels, it’s a difficult move to find a strong justification to the events occurring because, well, we know what happens. It becomes less about where things fall in the end and more about the characters involved and how we all get there. This is where The First Purge tends to falter quite a bit. The focuses in the film seem to answer many of the questions no one was really asking (Why is it called The Purge? Why do people wear crazy masks? What baffling G-science could possibly back this ludicrous concept?) and ignores some of the more intriguing elements that could have used more expansion like who are the New Founding Fathers and what strange person would have suggested this as a way to sway the American public into agreeing to this? Instead, what we get is a fairly straight forward ‘survive on Purge night’ narrative. Even the film’s political slant, which was kickstarted by a very bold first poster, seems more or less of an afterthought to the general formulaic narrative. The inclusion of Nazis and white supremacists as villains is more surface level than anything and the lack of a true villain to balance out the protagonists doesn’t do the film any favors - despite some of the imagery that comes with it to justify the violence laid upon them. There are not nearly as many sly commentaries embedded in the film as one would hope and while the overall commentary is solid enough, particularly in the choice to focus on only minority characters without the white protagonist to be the main character this time around - which, why did it take four films to get that right? - there was a feeling that it could have gone further.
Of course, The First Purge is easy enough to digest thanks to some very broad stroke characters and a plot that never throws a lot of twists or turns into the mix, but this does leave a lot to be desired. The characters are relatively hum-drum, including the morally strict do-gooder, her brother who is finding his place in the world, the sassy neighbor, and an ex-boyfriend who happens to be the crime kingpin of the area. If anything, it’s the ex-boyfriend character, Dmitri who is played with screen devouring charm and presence by Y’lan Noel, that steals the show and gets the one character arc that was seemingly fleshed out to any degree. There is a sequence in the third act where he gets to go full action hero and it is, in all honesty, kind of brilliant. Just the idea of a drug kingpin using his power to battle off government sent mercenaries to protect his neighborhood is easily the most entertaining element of the film and embraces the exploitative fun of the concept. Can he get his own Purge resistance spin-off film now?
|GIVE THIS MAN A FRANCHISE!|
Director Gerard McMurray handles the directorial duties fairly well, but occasionally misses out on creating the tension and ordered chaos needed to sell the tone of the film. For every moment that works (the final act kicks up the intensity nicely) there is a couple that fall flat including an assassination attempt on Dmitri that feels choppy. More or less though, it’s the patchy script from DeMonaco that holds this film back and McMurray does step into the series with remarkable ease considering this was always DeMonaco’s child. It feels like the rest and for fans looking for that, they will not be disappointed.
All in all, The First Purge is a massive step down from the previous two installments. The narrative tends to fall back a bit too far from more conspiracy focused political satire pieces the series has become known for and the execution is hit or miss in almost all regards. When the film works, during a one-man siege in the third act or the general build of how some of the criminals in the community are the ones who must stand up against the loaded dice of chance, it shows off some of the fun and inspired aspects that this series can utilize. It’s just too bad that the rest of the film falters under the weight of expectations and sputters out. The First Purge entertains well enough, but the potential could have been so much more.
Written By Matt Reifschneider