After witnessing the beginning of the end in Election Year, we go back to the start with this prequel. Localised to the experimental zone of Staten Island, the unfortunate inhabitants are paid to participate, either by sticking around the neighbourhood to bear witness or actively going for a murder. It’s Purge or be Purged.
Gangbanger Dmitri, protester Nya, and her brother Isaiah are just a handful of the locals left on the island. For Dmitri, it’s a quiet evening in, guarding his stash against competitors and enemies. As for the siblings, one plans to hole up with neighbours in the Church, while the other is on a vengeance kick against the crazed crackhead who humiliated him in the hood. Safe to say, none of these carefully-laid plans take into account the scale and machinations of the Purge or the sinister politicians behind it.
The franchise’s premise has always been inherently political, but The First Purge is the most topical yet, swapping bleak dystopia for a more recognisable climate of white polo shirts and the manipulations of ham-faced politicians. Its cast is almost entirely black, living in low-income housing and struggling under a government actively looking for a way to cull their numbers. What better way than to legalise crime and (hopefully) have the people sort themselves out? Naturally, some fudging of the figures may be required.
A lot has changed since Election Year’s release, and this prequel makes much of America’s awful new climate. Re-invigorated by real-life events, it bursts out of the doors angry, political and shockingly on-the-nose. As Purgers parade through the streets in KKK gear and pseudo-Nazi regalia, one certainly can’t accuse the franchise of burying its head in the sand or bland fence-sitting. The image of a bleeding, broken black man set upon in a baseball field by a gang of Purgers dressed (?) as cops is particularly haunting and depressingly relevant.
But while The First Purge’s righteous anger and lack of subtlety lend it a sense of vitality in the excellent action sequences, the storytelling is a clumsy mess. The characters are thinly-written stereotypes, the setup barely explained. We’re still hardly any wiser as to who the New Founding Fathers actually are, and the film wastes any chance to explore a world outside of Purge Night. Even Purge creator Marisa Tomei barely figures - literally (and badly) green-screened into the movie in one of its worst missteps, surrounded by amateurish actors and a calamitous narrative.
‘It’s not working!’ the film tells us, early on. ‘The people aren’t purging!’ Except, perhaps out of fear of boring its audience, the film shows us that people plainly are Purging. There’s even a guy called Skeletor going around stabbing people with syringe-fingers, like the Scarecrow in Arkham Asylum. This is the first Purge film to be worse than the one that preceded it; a wasted opportunity, just like the first film was.
And yet, for its considerable flaws and muddled storytelling, that context remains. One wishes there was a stronger foundation, but this is the Purge film America needs right now.
THE FIRST PURGE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: GERARD MCMURRAY / SCREENPLAY: JAMES DEMONACO / STARRING: Y’LAN NOEL, LEX SCOTT DAVIS, JOIVAN WADE, MUGGA / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Expected Rating: 8 out of 10