★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★
It’s almost difficult to characterize this film as fiction. There’s too many ghastly and prescient bits and pieces of allegory to present day horror happenings.
It’s sad, but terrifyingly true. Don’t be confused, the First Purge is not the first film in the Purge universe — it’s actually the fourth — following Purge, Purge: Anarchy, and Purge: Election Year. In very loose terms this series gravitates more closely to action/thriller than horror, but as a collective, there’s certainly some survival-related horror themes that run strongly through this franchise.
If you’re scoring this at home, weirdly, the First Purge wouldn’t be a terrible place to start this franchise viewing. As the name implies, it’s really where the entire Purge-world begins. The gnarly genesis of a shocking social experiment gone wrong, but repeated over and over and over. For those of you not keeping score at home, the premise behind the Purge-i-verse is an over-populated world faced with growing economic inequity. The solution? Once a year the newly anointed fascist government (The New Founding Fathers of America) asks its citizens to let their hair down, travel outside the confines of their homes, and kill, kill, kill. Ostensibly, the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable will gravitate to looting for sustenance and come to the deathly blows over the last 56” TV. Following this logic pattern, the poor kill the poor, there’s less financial pressures on society, and the wealthy are allowed to continue their baneful reign over society.
In the First Purge, director Gerald McMurray, in a short series of news clips, quickly lays out the New Founding Fathers of America’s ascendency and the impetus for the purge “experiment.” McMurray’s purge exposition is clear and concise and wastes no space in the film. If you’re four films in to the Purge-i-verse you probably don’t need a long and pedantic dissertation on why this is all going down. The film begins with a face-to-face interview with a peculiar and menacing self-proclaimed crackhead named Skeletor. Skeletor’s interview with the New Founding Fathers of America serves as an assessment of his willingness to commit violence and mayhem on his community. The New Founding Fathers of America, led by a consciously casted Brett Kavanaugh look-a-like (Patch Darragh), have decided to start slow for the first purge and have selected Staten Island as the sole and contained location for the experiment.
In the days leading up the experiment the film introduces the three main protagonists: Nya (Lex Scott Davis) the anti-purge do-gooder; Isiah (Jovian Wade) Nya’s good but troubled little brother; and Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) the community drug lord and all around good guy. The New Founding Fathers of America have offered all the residents of Staten Islands an “incentive” payment of $5,000 if they stay on the Island during for the 12 hour purge experiment and there’s added, but undisclosed, financial encouragement for killing and general brutality. Whether the residents love or hate the idea of the purge they all have fairly clear justification to stay put.
Young Isiah, trying to get his drug game hustle off the ground has an unfortunate run-in with the frightening Skeletor and Isiah is on the wrong of a non-fatal razor blade to the neck. Skeletor escapes the encounter, but not before Isiah vows to use the purge as revenge mechanism to get back at his crackhead nemesis. As the purge begins, the church folks collectively assemble at the church, the Dmitri and his drug dealing drug dealers barricade themselves around their product, and much to the chagrin of the New Founding Fathers of America, the good people of Staten Island get their party on!
Few fatalities come to light, little looting happens, and the New Founding Fathers of America with their Brett Kavanaugh look-a-like at the helm decide to inject a whole bunch of chaos in to the system. Working to ensure that the experiment will be a complete success militias, mercenaries, and mischievous middlemen begin to lay waste to the citizens of Staten Island with extreme prejudice — literally and figuratively. Along the way a local church is blown to bits, Isiah and Skeletor come face-to-face, and Dmitri and his drug dealing troupe uncover the New Founding Fathers of America’s dystopian plot to crush the poor. The film, appropriately, culminates with an emblematic showdown at one of the high rise project towers. The mercenaries cruelly don Al Jolsen, ape, and witch-doctor masks and they’re led by a decidedly 3rd reich-looking sadism freak. Do Dmitri, Isiah, and Nya snuff out these cretins and make it through the knot hole? We won’t ruin that surprise here, but let’s just say there’s plenty of action to satisfy even the most hardened Purge proponent.
Sadly, some of the mercenaries, aside from the repugnant costumes, have little to no lines or character development. Maybe their disgusting motives were already obvious enough and there was no reason to draw out these tendencies, but it certainly felt like a missed opportunity. The First Purge is well put together film, with a great core of actors, but much of it feels like director Gerald McMurray didn’t want to bother the audience with too much political discourse and societal exploration, but instead opted to concentrate on action-oriented rampage. Weirdly, some of these deficiencies just might be a reflection of what happens when a film is a comment on the life events that are currently unfolding before our tired and jaundiced eyes.
The First Purge is rated R and streaming on YouTube, Google Play, Amazon, and Vudu.