The success of James DeMonaco’s “Purge” franchise comes from a fairly simple formula. Make a good and well-received first film and then ride its name for countless sequels. Oh, and this is key – maintain small budgets making it next to impossible to lose any significant money. I would say it has been pretty effective. The four films have a combined budget of around $40 million but have taken in close to $375 million so far. The math is pretty easy.
For me the “Purge” series has been a guilty pleasure – movies with an undeniably absurd concept yet an attractive hook that kept me coming back. But the franchise has steadily evolved to where there is practically no resemblance to the tense Ethan Hawke original. That’s not a good thing. Throughout the course of the movies the horror element has become less and less pronounced. In this newest installment it’s all but gone.
“The First Purge” is a prequel aimed at showing how the whole ’12 hours of legal violence’ began. Amid a collapsing U.S. economy a third political party, The New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA), have risen to power. Backed by the NRA (as silly as it sounds) and profoundly white, the NFFA is DeMonaco’s biggest hammer. Of the many he uses, it’s the one he bludgeons us with the most. But at this point in the franchise it’s pretty clear DeMonaco isn’t interested in subtly or craftiness.
A non-partisan and naïve behavioral scientist Dr. May Updale (Marisa Tomei) devises a social “experiment” in which for 12 hours all crime including murder will be legal and emergency services are unavailable (it’s still as preposterous as it sounds). Updale’s idea is that people will have the opportunity to unleash their anger and hate (to Purge them if you will) leading to less crime and a more stable society. To use the film’s terminology, it is intended to be a “societal catharsis”. It’s an idea that remains both ludicrous and narratively fascinating.
But as followers of the franchise know, the devious NFFA have much bigger ideas for the “experiment” – population control, ethnic cleansing, economic class suppression, etc. Pick a vile, reprehensible position and DeMonaco probably has them booked for it. Most of this is conveyed through a barely registering Patch Darragh playing the President’s Chief of Staff (and looking far too similar to former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to be a mere convenience). They’ve chosen Staten Island for the “experiment” with hopes that it could be rolled out nationwide. To encourage maximum participation, the government offers $5000 to residents, specifically low income residents, who agree to stay on the island during the “experiment” with even more incentives for participation.
The bulk of our time is spent in an impoverished Staten Island neighborhood with an interesting assortment of locals played by a cast of relatively unknowns. Among them is an intriguing young actress Lex Scott Davis. She is very good as an inspired activist named Nya who is committed to her community and to her impulsive young brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) who is being tempted down the wrong path. There is also Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), Nya’s ex-boyfriend and (how should I put it) a local drug kingpin with a heart of gold. Noel is another new face who offers a real presence on the screen despite some real logic issues with his character. Once the haunting sirens wail initiating the start of the “experiment”, Nya, Dimitri, and Isaiah must not only survive but defend the community the hold dear.
“The First Purge” marks the first installment written but not directed by DeMonaco. Gerard McMurray takes the directing reigns and in terms of visuals and tone his take is pretty much indistinguishable from the last two “Purge” films. What he does do is amp of the violence. By the final act it has hypocritically morphed into a crazy, bullet-riddled action movie, relishing much of what the film is supposedly speaking against. And aside from feeling weirdly disconnected from the rest of the movie, the big blood-soaked finale (think Rambo laced with The Crow) was almost unbearable in my theater due to a cool but headache-inducing strobe light effect.
Speaking of violence, the “Purge” movies seem to have a growing fascination with white versus black warfare. The race/class warfare theme has been hammered home for the entire series, but an argument could be made that this movie ratchets it up. It’s uncomfortable to watch but not in the smart, provocative or thought-provoking way. In this film it’s hard to tell whether they are pandering to a current political angst or exploiting it.
Despite its goofiness and inflated sense of relevance “The First Purge” is serviceable throwaway entertainment. In other words there is enough in terms of functional characters (thanks to a couple of interesting new performers) to salvage it from disaster. But it’s still not a movie to recommend. It’s more of the same in slightly (and I do mean slightly) different packaging. Oh, and if you’re worried this will be the last “Purge” movie, fear not. Look for several shameless endorsements of fellow Blumhouse production “Halloween” and a mid-credits commercial for their upcoming “Purge” television. They definitely have plans for this franchise. I just wish it was heading in a better direction.
VERDICT – 2 STARS