A film review by Craig J. Koban July 29, 2018

THE FIRST PURGE j
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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. 

SPOILER ALERT (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 the cost. 

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

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