The First Purge (2018)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
The Purge has a built-in legion of fans and seeing how the story supposedly begins is likely going to pop a nice opening weekend audience.
At the heart of the movie lie two very good performances from Y’Lan Noel and Lax Scott Davis, both of which deserve bigger and better projects going forward.
Lots of blood, violence, political commentary, and blood, and violence, The First Purge is, in a word, bonkers.
Some of us may need a shower after this.
The screenplay by James DeMonaco is simplistic, dumb, and thinks it is being topical and clever, when it just relies on lazy, troubling stereotypes to further a narrative of America in social decay.
The preview screening had a television advertisement for the new “Purge” television series play as the mid-credits teaser scene. And perhaps, that’s all you need to know about the depth and breadth of this thing.
Upon first blush, The First Purge feels grimy, sleazy, something akin to salacious garbage. Rather conveniently, this franchise has lucked into a toxic political divide currently separating many of us in 2018 America. And so, with this fourth Purge movie, writer and former director James DeMonaco resets his franchise, crafting a prequel to the mayhem and wanton bloodlust that has defined the previous three Purge films.
Whereas the first film took place in 2022 and starred Ethan Hawke, and the most recent film lurched ahead to a dystopian 2040, The First Purge brings us right back to, well, present-day America, where Democrats and Republicans have ceded power to the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA), an upstart, radical, far-right political party who just won the White House.
Here “The Purge” is dubbed “The Experiment” and the NFFA has partnered with Dr. May Updale (Marisa Tomei, why?!?), a social scientist who sees “The Experiment” as a way of studying socio-economic disadvantages among minority communities, and the interconnectivity those conditions have to committing violence. Staten Island, New York is chosen as the test location, and for those who may not be familiar with what “The Purge” is: There are no crimes for a 12-hour period and anything is legal, allowable, and permitted.
Naturally, for four films, this has meant murder has ultimately becomes the crime of choice, and with Staten Island, and specifically the Park Hill neighborhood being predominantly populated by Persons of Color, well, let’s just unfurl those uncomfortable analogies and stereotypes and let them run free.
What’s the worst that could happen right?
Elsewhere, we follow Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel), an occasionally ruthless drug lord, who is still in love with ex-girlfriend Nya (Lex Scott Davis), who also sees himself as something of a big-brother/protector to her little brother, Isaiah (Joivian Wade).
Dmitri’s viciousness to his enemies, and reciprocal loyalty to his boys and ex-girlfriend makes him a drug-dealing Jekyll and Hyde. And it should be mentioned here that DeMonaco’s screenplay is bonkers. Dmitri is supposed to become our antihero, but his sweet-and-sour persona has no credibility and, quite frankly, it is something of a stretch to ever believe that Nya’s morality would allow herself to date a man like Dmitri. But, alas, here we are.
Directed by Gerard McMurray, The First Purge gives us an America that resembles the political rhetoric espoused on the Fox News Channels, Drudge Reports, and Huffington Posts of the world, and is crippled by it. We hear of escalating unemployment, an opioid epidemic, and wanton crime and poverty in the inner cities. Naturally, to fit the movie’s edgy and supposedly progressive worldview, we cast only African-American and Latinx characters in the main roles, in what is clearly an attempt at placing our current President Trump’s polarizing comments and policies on race and immigration front and center in our minds.
This whole endeavor reeks of cable-movie levels of depth and thought. Tomei’s character is written so poorly, you want to believe she saw a different screenplay when she agreed to appear in the film. The government villain, NFFA Chief of Staff Arlo Sabian, is played to SyFy Channel levels of perfection by Patch Darragh, in one of the most ham-fisted and preening performances of this or any year.
If there are positives, they come in the performances from Noel and Davis. Somehow, they maneuver through this quicksand of a movie far better than The First Purge deserves. Noel is a star on the rise, in need of better roles, and, although we are somehow supposed to believe that by slinging rock on the streets of Staten Island he has become the equivalent of a military-trained marksman, his charisma and presence is nonetheless quite striking.
Coupled with the calming, nuanced Davis, The First Purge finds just enough of a core with its two main actors, allowing us to swallow down the cheap and demeaning way it treats real-life issues, people, and concerns in today’s world.
Then again, no one has ever held The Purge, or its canon, up as top-tier cinematic suspense. This is a B-movie (or less) with a budget, making lazy, political jabs to the skies above, and stitching together characters whose totals do not equal the sum of their parts.
Perhaps the underlying message of all of this is how we are all little more than pawns in someone else’s game, and we increasingly accept anything if, 1) we stay entertained; 2) we feel valued somehow; and 3) if I am not personally affected by something, no one else has the right to be.
Wait. Hold up.
You know what…
The more I think about this, maybe The First Purge is more spot-on with the world today than I want to give it credit for.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Y’Lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivian Wade, Muggah, Patch Darragh, Marisa Tomei, Luna Lauren Velez, Kristen Solis, Rotimi Paul, Steve Harris, Mo McRae, Melonie Diaz.
Director: Gerard McMurray
Written by: James DeMonaco
Release Date: July 4, 2018