The third “Purge” movie, “The Purge: Election Year,” effectively forced the franchise to head in a (or another) new direction and so it has, with the latest entry offering up the tale of “The First Purge.” Although the film is still written by James DeMonaco, who wrote and directed the previous three, this one is helmed by Gerard McMurray (“Burning Sands”) and is, unquestionably, the weakest of the four films.
Those who attend the film to learn about the machinations involved in creating “the purge,” a 12 hour event legalizing any and all crime, will get some quick answers involving the NFFA (New Founding Fathers of America, the political group which has taken over the country and something of a stand-in for the far right members of the GOP and Trump himself) wanting the poor to die so that they no longer take money from the government.
To do this, the NFFA Chief of Staff, Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh), has discovered that there’s a doctor out there, Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), who thinks it would be good for people’s psyches to let out their violent tendencies every once in a while. And so, the movie opens with a test purge set to start on Staten Island and the NFFA, not surprisingly, organizing things behind the scenes of which Dr. Updale is unaware.
“The First Purge,” even if the events take place during the purge, rarely feels as though it is about the purge at all. It is, instead, a bad gang movie, one where an older sister, Nya (Lex Scott Davis), is attracted to the local drug kingpin, Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), but won’t date him because of his lifestyle. At the same time, Nya is trying to raise her brother, Isaiah (Joivan Wade), who has, unbeknownst to her or Dmitri, started selling drugs for Dmitri’s gang.
Naturally there are members of Dmitri’s gang who aren’t happy about the way things are being run. They feel like the purge may be the right time to get rid of him.
Do not stop and question this logic, because the only answer is that those seeking to take down Dmitri aren’t that smart, or the movie isn’t that smart. These are people who live outside the law on a daily basis, so why go after Dmitri on the night when he’s most ready for there to be a problem?
There are several moments in the film that feel wholly ill-considered or that they are the leftover remains of plots that didn’t make the final cut. Steve Harris’ character, Freddy, appears and disappears in the movie rather randomly and at one point has a sling on his arm, that wasn’t there previously, seemingly the result of some fighting.
“The First Purge,” focuses less on horror than it does spilling blood in gunfights and knife slashes, but it still can’t manage to avoid terribly clichéd horror dialogue, like characters announcing “we’re safe” when no one in their right mind would possibly believe that.
At this point, it feels as though the franchise has no idea what it wants to be. This is a movie where the filmmakers make sure we know that all crime is legal, because this is a Purge, but where the word “purge” is specifically used, more than once, to refer to murder and not any other crime. It is a movie where there is a brief acknowledgment that maybe illegal drugs and a life of crime are bad, only to toss that all out the window. It is a movie where people slow down on the street to have a serious talk about life knowing full well that it’s not a night where one wants to be on the street.
The best thing the movie has going for it are colored contact lenses given to Purge participants. These offer up an impressively unnerving look to characters even if the idea that they’re really small video cameras and location trackers seems unnecessarily expensive and complicated for a government trying to spend less money.
The action, as directed by McMurray, is difficult to parse as it unfolds on the screen. This is a combination of the camera angles and cutting alongside the lack of rhyme or reason to the characters’ actions.
“The First Purge” is neither a good “Purge” movie nor a good drug war movie nor a good commentary on the issues faced by the underprivileged and society’s responsibilities to them. It is a disappointment across the board, but whether it tamps down the enthusiasm for another film or the upcoming TV series remains to be seen.
photo credit: Universal Studios