Film Review: ‘The First Purge’

How much more purging do we actually need before we are cleansed?

The Purge, just in case you are not familiar with it, is an annual event in which any crime is legal for 12 hours, and emergency services are suspended. This was initiated by the elected New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) as a response to the crippling economy, as well as to provide a way for people to “release the beat” and cleanse their thirst for acting on their anger. If this sounds preposterous or unrealistic, that’s because it is! Thankfully, this is not real life (that I know of), only a movie, and that movie somehow made enough money to develop into a franchise!

The first film of the series, simply titled The Purge, was released in 2013. Though it had the event at its core, it played more as a home invasion movie, when it should have shown more of how the Purge itself worked. The two sequels that followed, The Purge: Anarchy in 2014 and The Purge: Election Year in 2016, were marginal improvements, since the audience was allowed to see more of the Purge in action, as well as the way people of different classes were affected by it. However, despite, solid performances from Frank Grillo and Elizabeth Mitchell, the films themselves were substandard. Now, since Election Year seemed to have marked the end of the annual Purge, they had to go back to the beginning and show how it all got started in order to keep the franchise alive

In this story, we see the NFFA planning an experiment: make crime legal for 12 hours a year to help build up the economy and bring the crime rate down below 1%. They decide to recruit the entire borough of Staten Island as a testing ground for the experiment and offer to pay $5000 to those who choose to participate–that is, if they survive the night. One recruit is Isiah, a young man who is thirsty for revenge against someone he crossed paths with earlier. His sister, Nya, tries to seek shelter from the event, but enters the war zone to rescue his brother. At the same time, a local gang kingpin, Dmitri, tries to protect his kingdom from other gang members who are participating as “Purgers.” As these characters, as well as all residents of Staten Island, try to survive the night, they, and the viewer, discover that, big shock, there is more to this Purge experiment than expected.

Film franchises can face damage with a prequel, because filmmakers are limited by the previous installments’ continuity, not to mention that origin stories are often not necessary. The Purge series, however, has the potential to make a decent prequel, because it is interesting to know how high government officials could take such an interesting, yet ridiculous idea and put it into action. Those going into the movie expecting, as I did, to see that, might walk away half-satisfied.

I will give this film credit where it is due, in that there is a decent build-up to the commencement of the first Purge. You get the sense that not many of the Staten Island residents know how to interpret what is about to happen once the alarms start ringing (the sound of a baby crying in a church during the ringing was admittedly a nice touch). Some people even decide to just throw a relatively harmless rave instead. When the actual purging does start, the film starts cooking with gas and starts delivering some decent thrills. Another positive note is that, unlike the other Purge movies, this one shows other forms of crime, like robbery, being committed instead of only murder.

On the other hand, the film suffers from the same problems that the previous films do; absurd acting, dialogue, and scenarios. One of the biggest jaw-dropping scenes in this film is not even a death, but a no-so-subtle bit of advertisement. As one person is preparing himself for the Purge, there is a poster on his wall for the upcoming Halloween film. Why yes, it is a Blumhouse production! Another is when a female character, while escaping being groped in her private area, runs while shouting “P#@@y-Grabbing Motherf#@%(^!” I think anyone being groped would have a more visceral reaction than that. James DeMonaco, although not directing this Purge entry, still wrote the screenplay, and shows little to no improvement when it comes to writing dialogue.

In terms of cast, Y’Lan Noel as Dmitri is easily the best character in the film. He is charismatic, and has a layered personality, and doesn’t act like the stereotypical gang member you would expect to see in this role. He easily steals the show from a cast that ranges from subpar to just plain forgettable. The biggest name in this film, Marisa Tomei, is not in the film very long, and it is sad to see such a talented actor wasted.

The Purge series is known for its middling attempts at social commentary, and this film continues that tradition. One such new addition is the inclusion of contact lenses that “Purgers” wear to broadcast their killings to the NFFA. I guess that this is supposed to be a reference to body camera footage now worn by police officers, but this goes beyond suspension of disbelief. If we are at a point in time where people can wear contact lenses with wireless 4K-looking cameras in them, why do we still need the ferry and bus to get off of Staten Island? Perhaps we’ll find out in the inevitable sequel, “The Second Purge.”

At the end of the day, The First Purge is basically another Purge film with the same problems that plagued the series from the beginning: subpar acting and taking itself way too seriously. It is admittedly one of the better entries in this series, but not by much. In the meantime, I am going to celebrate Independence Day by watching Independence Day, a stupid film I can actually enjoy.

NOTE: There are two mid-credit sequences at the end of the film; one of them being an epilogue. The other is an advertisement, though I’ll let you find out what it is for.

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