The First Purge
The popular Purge franchise has registered with audiences as socially significant ever since the original installment first hit theaters in 2013. However, it seems more relevant now than ever, even after two sequels (2014’s The Purge: Anarchy and 2016’s The Purge: Election Year respectively).
The latest installment in the series is The First Purge, a prequel that takes us back to the origins of the titular event to answer all of our burning questions. How and why was the Purge tradition established? Even more importantly, how Americans come to accept and embrace it to the extent that they have within the context of the series? Although The First Purge was produced by the same team (including powerhouses Michael Bay and Jason Blum), it’s the first not to be directed by James DeMonaco (although DeMonaco did write the screenplay). Gerard McMurray sat in the director’s chair instead this time around.
The plotline makes good on its promise to explain the origins of the Purge to long-time fans of the series. The New Founding Fathers of America, a far-right authoritarian group of white Americans, suggest New York’s own Staten Island as the possible site of an experiment that will sound familiar to long-time Purge fans. For a period of 12 hours, all crime – up to and including murder — will become temporarily legal. (For those that are unaware, the population of Staten Island consists mostly of low-income minorities.)
Officially, the experiment is treated as a much-needed social release designed to help the community heal. However, it is the secret hope of the New Founding Fathers that the 12-hour event will actually fuel deadly violence, especially since residents that remain through the end of the experience will be rewarded with money.
As might be expected, the great majority of the low-income communities involved don’t want anything to do with the event. However, there are also those thinking about participating. They include Isaiah (wonderfully played by Joivan Wade) who is hoping to use the Purge to exact revenge on maniacal crackhead, Skeletor (Rotimi Paul). There are staunchly anti-Purge citizens to be reckoned with as well, including drug kingpin Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), as well as Isaiah’s social activist sister Nya (Lex Scott Davis).
Once the Purge begins, the New Founding Fathers ensure that violence ensues by sending undercover units to stir things up and goad the people of Staten Island into engaging in more than just petty crime. After the threat reaches critical mass, Dmitri and his team decide to take out the NFFA units and save Staten Island’s innocents before the event concludes. Will he succeed and what will the outcome of the very first Purge inspire the NFFA to do next?
Logistically, The First Purge starts out strong. It does an excellent job of putting its finger on exactly what gives America so much potential for political volatility, particularly issues of inequality revolving around gender, race, and class. It also sets the scene in a way that makes it easy to understand why and how the dystopian America of the Purge franchise eventually came to be.
However, once the actual events of the Purge begin, the action doesn’t quite deliver. For starters, DeMonaco’s screenplay lacks focus and never quite manages to designate a central plotline, abruptly switching focus halfway through the film. The conflicts that arise between the primary characters aren’t anywhere near as intense as it could be either and the jump scares horror movie fans have come to expect from the Purge films are fair at best. Also, some elements – such as the glow-in-the-dark contact lenses Purge participants are given to wear during the event – come across as forced and out of place.
Bright spots include a terrific performance by breakout British star, Joivan Wade as Isaiah. Also, the film is trim and concise at a comfortable 97 minutes, so it doesn’t drag on longer than it should. Lastly, while some of the imagery does come across as unnecessarily heavy-handed, The First Purge still manages to paint a sobering picture of the state of America that can’t help but leave viewers thinking. While not perfect, it’s worth seeing, especially for fans of the franchise.