Is this is beginning, or is this the end? For The New Founding Fathers of America, it’s the former. The NFFA has risen to power, overtaking the Republican and Democratic party to put a new leader in the White House. In 2014, America is at a crossroads, one that sees sky-high unemployment levels and extreme overpopulation. Her future depends on finding a solution.
Working with psychologist Dr. May Updale (Marisa Tomei), there may be one by way of a new social experiment being dubbed “The Purge,” a timed period in which all crime—including murder—is legal for twelve hours. This experiment is taking place in the Staten Island, New York projects, where minorities live in poverty. Some, like Nya (Lex Scott Davis), try to uplift the community. Others, like her drug-dealing ex Dimitri (Y’Lan Noel), use the environment to profit monetarily. Anyone who chooses to stay on the island during this test gets paid, and those who choose to purge get bonused on activity. The power is with the people to determine whether the examination becomes fully sanctioned in the coming years…or does it lie with the government?
Four movies deep rarely see a franchise change much, and that assessment applies to The Purge‘s latest installment in The First Purge. Only difference is, we’re going back to the beginning before the sirens became an official part of New America. All this really means is that if a person wasn’t on board by the now with the bizarre-yet-intriguing (and now somewhat believable, sadly) twelve-hour kill spree premise before, The First Purge isn’t going to be the “Eureka” moment now. One’s enjoyment mileage of these movies is dependent on how much pleasure is extracted from spending time in this dark world.
Subtlety has never been this series’ strong suit, led by writer and director James DeMonaco. For this go-around, he’s only in charge of penning the script. The points are made about our 2018 America by way of the disenfranchised and their divide from the rest of America, guns and whether it’s right to be able to tote them, and an oppressive government that will readily resort to interference and manipulation to carry out a desired result. Sometimes, they’re made in clever, thought provoking ways that resonat ; a church incident in this film, for example, truly hits home. Other times, they’re carried out with the force of a sledgehammer, via CNN and Van Jones (in an astonishingly bad green screen interview) or endless wave upon wave of resistance decked out in hooded regalia and blackface masks.
To make sure the point is across, debut director Gerald McMurray lingers on some of these moments for what seems like an eternity. After the first, the movies that make up The Purge series have always pointed to the poor as the big victims of the social experiment. However, this is the first time that DeMonaco has clearly defined that African-Americans are the #1 target for eradication. There feels like there could be more balance in this execution. Instead, it comes off as “99% of white Americans people are bad.” Ending The First Purge in a low-hanging but feel-good moment is Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” played over sound bytes and press conferences that officially ratify The Purge event into law. The message is crystal clear: Black America, you’re in a struggle, but keep fighting and the tide will turn.
Outside of a liberal use of jump scares, The Purge series has moved away from the horror lean found in the original and doubles down (for the better actually) on an urban sprawl, GTA-like approach. The First Purge continues this, relying on a dilapidated setting, menacing masks (many outfitted with White Walker-esque contacts too!) and sharp color palette to create a sense of atmosphere. Nothing that hasn’t been done before, but when the formula isn’t necessarily broke, why fix it? McMurray and DeMonaco don’t have a consistent handle on pace but do make up for it with the final act, an unabashedly ultra-violent crazy mix of Dredd, The Raid, and even Die Hard along with corny one-liners. Yes, remove a little here and there, and The First Purge could fit in as a late 80’s/early 90’s flick.
From a character standpoint, only Frank Grillo’s Sarge has been an individual worth truly caring for and getting behind during the span of these films. The Purge series is generally plug and play with the premise and the setting drawing viewers in, and the acting has often reflected that. It’s surprising, then, that the fourth movie carries the best characters since Sarge in Nya and Dimitri. Davis and Noel don’t elevate the basic material, but they’re likable enough to want to see them survive the night. Noel, particularly, of Insecure fame, might have a future in the action genre. Doesn’t excuse how his character with no alluded-to-training can take out a horde of heavily trained militia all by himself, but I digress. As for everyone else, rudimentary stock characters are present and serve to be disposed of when deemed necessary, although Skeletor (played by Rotimi Paul) steals the show in his ten minutes of screentime as a sadistic maniac who’s destined to become a superstar on Purge night.
A franchise reborn? Hard to see what more can be mined from this universe on the silver screen after The First Purge, another entry to the franchise that has often always been a frustrating tease in that it entertains, but consistently carries the feeling that another level could be reached. Maybe the upcoming television show can Make The Purge Great for the first time?
Photo credits go to legionofleia.com and IMDB.com.
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I had written elsewhere that this franchise is somewhat of a guilty pleasure for me. At the same time I’ve grown colder and colder towards it. Anxious to see this one Thursday.
I think you and I are in the same boat. These movies manage to draw me in just enough ,and they do have some moments of smart writing and societal reflection. Still, they feel like they could and so be so much more.