July 3, 2018 The First Purge (Movie Review)
The Purge franchise seems to have grown faster than any other series in recent memory. The fourth installment in as many years, The First Purge – which arrives to theaters nationwide on July 4, 2018, thanks to Blumhouse Productions – takes viewers back to the origins of the Purge and explores the socio/economic turmoil that lead to its concept, and the rise of the ultranationalist New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA). This is the first of the series to be directed by Gerard McMurray (Battle Buddy short 2011, Burning Sands 2017), taking over for longtime Writer/Director James DeMonaco, who is serving as writer and producer this time.
Beginning with a montage of social unrest across the country where riots over a lack of money, food, and other essentials are widespread, and the public has turned against the political leadership. This opens the way for the far right-wing political party that has been the main antagonist throughout the series, the NFFA, to take political power and enact desperate measures to relieve the crisis. The titular first Purge takes place in the New York borough of Staten Island, rather than the entire country, and residents are given money as an incentive to stay for the Purge, and even more if they participate (i.e. murder others) in the allotted time. This doesn’t go as smoothly as the NFFA had hoped.
The story follows three main protagonists: local drug lord Dmitri played by Y’lan Noel (Insecure series); Lex Scott Davis (The Reunion 2016, Training Day series) as the heroic community leader Nya; and Joivan Wade (Eastenders series, Dr. Who series) as Isaiah, young, naive, and in way over his head.
The entire film takes place in a poor, mostly African-American neighborhood, and it’s no accident that the experimental first Purge was centered there. During the Purge, Dmitri is concerned with protecting his business assets, Nya is trying to organize her community to resist participating and protecting the vulnerable, and Isaiah agrees to participate out of desperation but quickly finds out he’s not made of the stuff it takes to be a killer. All three will face life or death situations and eventually come together to try and survive, all while the NFFA manipulates nearly everything from afar.
The First Purge works well as a prequel despite not really bringing anything new to the series. The main draw of the series is, of course, the Purge itself rather than the characters in each, so unlike many other prequels, we aren’t getting character origins but an idea origin. This is inherently less-involved than if the audience were following familiar characters, but it works thanks to solid performances and good directing. It’s a bit clunky and implausible over all, meandering between social commentary and high action, but it holds together well enough. The lead characters are well-written and will have the audience on their side as they desperately fight the nightmare of the Purge.
Furthermore, it is interesting to see how DeMonaco portrayed the public in this entry compared to previous films. The Purge is a major political issue and is very much contested among the public, and we, in fact, learn that most people are not willing to go to the lengths the NFFA hoped, even with the monetary incentive. The participants range from opportunistic criminals to the clearly deranged, but the desperate everyman and woman want no part of this. This is different than in the other films, where the feeling is that more ‘regular’ people have accepted and participate in the Purge. It’s a smart move that adds tangibility where it needs to be in order to offset the feeling of the franchise falling too far into mindless action.
The First Purge should please fans of the franchise and it also serves as a good introduction for those not already familiar with the films. The public tension is relatable to today’s environment, as is the political upheaval that fosters an air of worrisome uncertainty. DeMonaco has done a good job writing a cohesive and memorable story over four films now, and McMurray does a commendable job for his first time at the helm.
The First Purge certainly knows how to emphasize its strengths and delivers an entertaining ride, and for that CrypticRock gives it 4 out of 5 stars.