‘The First Purge’ Turns Dystopia Into Urban Mayhem

The First Purge” is the latest movie to bring a franchise to that inevitable point signaling plot exhaustion, the prequel. Blumhouse Productions rewinds the clock in its highly successful “Purge” series to the beginning, when global chaos has led to a fascistic annual ritual where for 12 hours, all crime is legal. You would imagine this idea opens the door to some of the most debauched, scorching genre cinema ever made. Instead this latest chapter tries multiple angles before spiraling into another loud, testosterone action flick. It dabbles in some horror, some sprinkles of political satire, and then showers you with ammo.

Set in some near future (very near judging from the borrowed news stock footage) where riots, economic crisis and political instability have wrecked the world, the story is set in Staten Island, where the regime of the New Founding Fathers of America has decided to test out the idea of a “purge.”  You know the drill, one night for 12 hours all crime, including murder, will be made legal. The idea being society can let loose and release all of its inner rages. Locals who wish to participate in exchange for compensation are interviewed and given special contact lenses, which will record whatever they do during the test. The more purging you do, the more the government will pay, assuming you survive. Protesting the experiment is an activist, Nya (Lex Scott Davis), who plans to barricade herself with others inside a church. Her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) also planned to skip the party but changes his mind after being attacked by a local psycho, whose name dear reader, happens to be Skeletor (Rotimi Paul). Meanwhile a local drug kingpin, the flashy Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), is not a big fan of the purge, especially since it could kill off both his customers and dealers, and decides to prep his henchmen to watch over their turf. Overseeing the purge is a sneaky government official, Chief of Staff Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh), and Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), the “architect” of the whole idea, who hope this can become a new American tradition.

Going on four films now, the whole “Purge” series has always been an interesting concept filtered through trashy filmmaking. Except for the original 2013 movie, most have featured an odd combination of quirky imagery with subpar plotting. “The First Purge” starts off with some alluring concepts. The scenes where government officials interview local residents, asking if they have any anger issues and would like to participate in the purge, have a creepy, dystopian quality. When the movie sort of works it has something in common with directors like George Romero or John Carpenter, who combined campiness with social commentary. Taking some advantage of the current political climate, director Gerard McMurray and writer James DeMonaco, who penned and directed the first three movies, continue the trend of the last installment, “The Purge: Election Day.” They gleefully combine geeky violence and horror with winks at the real world. The whole purge concept is a form of class war, as the NFFA government uses the practice to thin the herd and deal with overpopulation, but applying the experiment in poor neighborhoods. Sometimes the imagery works in a dystopian style apart from the story, like a memorable image of mad-eyed cops surrounding a black man in a baseball field, or purgers dressed in KKK sheets roaming the streets with AK-47s.

But by the third act the movie becomes quite the silly mess. The purging doesn’t go as planned, because most people apparently would rather throw block parties. Twitchy Skeletor is the only person who actually wants to kill people (with a Wolverine-like claw system made of syringes no less), so the regime responds by covertly sending in mercenaries to spread chaos. This defeats the whole concept of the franchise itself, so instead of this being a portrait of a society going nuts, it turns into a standard action movie where the good guys start blowing away mercenaries. Dimitri is the latest in a recent trend of movie drug dealers who deep down have the heart of a hero. He instructs his henchmen to get armed to fight back because “this is our neighborhood,” a neighborhood he floods with narcotics every other day of the year, but there you have it. One can imagine real street dealers watching in awe as Dimitri not only cares for the community, but is an expert in urban guerrilla war and hand to hand combat, with methods Jason Statham would envy. The final act of “The First Purge” lacks any horror or even suspense, because it becomes a bullet orgy of people shooting at each other in hallways, rooms, bathrooms, front yards, back yards, before the required final explosion from which Dimitri can shield himself and Nya with a mere mattress. The entire idea behind the concept of this franchise, of what indeed could happen if the laws were suspended for 12 hours, is just not there anymore. A disturbing notion is turned into a boring rehash of every muscle man with a grenade movie. A major character isn’t even properly killed off. Instead their demise is suddenly revealed on a surveillance video, with little to no lead up. It is as if McMurray and DeMonaco had somewhat of an idea for the first half, then gave up and decided everything should resolve itself with nonstop shootouts. Skeletor, played by Rotimi Paul so well you wonder if he himself is stable, is introduced early on as a key antagonist, only to disappear and reappear near the end for a pitiful fate.

Fans of the original “Purge” films will possibly only find what they like about this series in the first act, where eerie, familiar elements appear such as the public service announcement signaling the purge has begun, or people in disturbing masks wandering the streets. The rest is all gunfire and lots of running. It lacks even the satire of “Election Day,” which was no masterpiece, but it had fun poking at religious fundamentalism, American culture and other wicked jabs. Here you wish the filmmakers had purged themselves of stale ideas.

The First Purge” releases July 4 in theaters nationwide.