The First Purge, 2018.
Directed by Gerard McMurray.
Starring Y’lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Christian Robinson, Mugga, Patch Darragh, Luna Lauren Velez, Kristen Solis, Rotini Paul, Mo McRae, Jermel Howard, Siya, Steve Harris, Mitchell Edwards, D.K. Bowser, Derek Basco, Maria Rivera, Chyna Layne, Ian Blackman, Melonie Diaz, Naszir Nance, and Marisa Tomei.
Behind every tradition lies a revolution. This Independence Day, witness the rise of our country’s 12 hours of annual lawlessness. Welcome to the movement that began as a simple experiment:
Seeing The Purge franchise make a detour into prequel territory is certainly a bit surprising, mainly because there is no reason to do so now; this is a series that has yet to live up to the potential amassed from its tantalizing concept of all crime legalized for one night annually. For starters, the case could be made that James DeMonaco (writer and director of the first three films, only returning this time around to pen the script) is only fixated on crimes involving death and murder; when you’re giving an entire country, especially one as morally bankrupt as America is nowadays, free reign to do whatever the hell they want, that same sense of freedom should apply to the process of crafting these stories, going beyond killing.
Instead, all there really is to show so far is a bunch of degenerates mistaking the celebration as a reason to cosplay some creepy original characters, rich people being evil, and a plethora of in-your-face political commentary. The initial poster for The First Purge was just a riff on Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan, something the filmmakers have actually taken to heart in regards to providing a jolt to this fastly fading series. Ironically, that will probably be the nicest statement ever made utilizing that horrid catchphrase.
Anyway, given the task to tell an origin story of the cleansing evening is the very capable Gerard McMurray, who is responsible for the underrated and overlooked college fraternity hazing drama Burning Sands (the film was purchased by Netflix out of Sundance, so give it a watch). And to be fair, the collaborating McMurray and DeMonaco do a serviceable job expanding the mythology. Of course, there are more bizarre individuals donning scary costumes, but the film feels aware that the aspect has become a joke, now offering an explanation as to how and why that became a staple of The Purge. In addition to that, there are more crooked politicians interested in their own personal gain, including an especially nasty fellow that the NRA just happens to support in one of the more comical small references to our current times. Starting out as a sociological experiment contained to Staten Island, New York, The First Purge is anything but conducted for psychological research.
Setting the violent proceedings inside of the predominantly black urban borough also allows The First Purge to take on a different atmosphere and tone than previous installments. Here, we have groups ranging from drug dealing gangsters that look ripped straight out of the recently released remake of SuperFly gold chain necklaces and all, activists against what the government is calling “The Experiment”, and young adults struggling inside of a system that keeps the poor down as the rich only become wealthier while finding new ways to display deplorable behavior. Much of this works, but instances such as rivals taking advantage of Purge night to plan attempted assassinations feels forced; these are criminals, they aren’t going to wait for a special night to begin offering each other in a power struggle.
Also present is a mentally disturbed, tattooed, extremely prone to violent outbursts man (Rotimi Paul) who should come across as threatening but simply doesn’t; for whatever reason, the filmmakers went the route of finding an actor or insisting on a voice that is the complete opposite of intimidating. Remember Michael Clarke Duncan in The Longest Yard remake? Well imagine that voice on someone much smaller, roaming around stabbing people for no reason; the result is somewhat effective, although usually elicits laughter from its inherent silliness. Furthermore, the dissonance between reality and over-the-top cartoon shenanigans continues to be a prevalent detracting element from the mood of these movies.
Bearing that in mind, The First Purge is easily a step up from the last two films thanks to McMurray’s stylistically brutal direction of the action sequences. For your standard drug dealer characters, these people know how to fight; there’s a segment clouded by smoke that features nearly a dozen gory blade slashes. Equally impressive is the choreography during an extended hand-to-hand fight all around an apartment complex staircase. I’m sure there will be fans of the franchise indecisive on checking out this new entry without Frank Grillo returning, but I assure you Y’lan Noel is a suitable replacement. There’s an intensity and urgency to the violence that has been missing since the first film.
Admittedly, there are times when The First Purge feels too much like a run-of-the-mill story about gangsters but told through the filter of this supposedly liberating evening of carnage, meaning that not all of the characters resonate. Once again, there are numerous players to keep track of, a handful of political jabs, and a broad narrative that is clearly trying to do too much at once. often coming across as plain goofy. However, as a whole, the film is competently directed and staged with a few memorable segments, which is already more than I can say for the last two. You can’t help but feel that this concept would work far better as a television series, and lo and behold, apparently someone agrees; during the ending credits, there is an advertisement for a special 10-episodic night event, which is probably where The Purge can finally find greatness.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com