The Purge franchise has consistently performed well with each new sequel, and that can be attributed to the marketing. It invites you to a community event that throws disregard to the rule of law and morality. In this event, all grievances and grudges are resolved through acts of extreme violence and, in most cases, murder. It’s not exactly a family barbecue, but the simple concept seems to intrigue audiences enough to want to come back every time. Let’s take a closer look in our review of The First Purge.
The original Purge movie was a small, indie horror film that focused mainly on a single, wealthy neighborhood and a family that protects a black man on the run from a group of privileged, homicidal socialites. It dealt with class, race, morality, and family dysfunction. Purge: Anarchy expanded on this world with depraved millionaires going after the poor for sport. The poor families and their attempts at survival are the primary subplots. The main character, Leo Barnes, is out for revenge following the death of his son and the drunk driver’s acquittal at trial. His story would continue into Purge: Election Year, with Leo providing security to the first viable candidate opposing the purge.
In Election Year, the very politics that created and encouraged legal murderers are front and center. It provided a satisfying if uneven, completion to this particular chapter in the Purge world. The sequels emphasized more action than horror but didn’t skimp on the gore. They also added some small amount of humor to balance the emotional experience. Despite all the world-building these three movies have done, there is always the question of how all this could have ever happened. Much like a Black Mirror episode, you just accept this strange reality and move forward. Science-fiction relies on this all the time, and this abhorrent, dystopian future is no exception. So what exactly started all this?
In The First Purge, directed by Gerard McMurray, the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) have been in power for several years and have come up with a plan to fix the country’s economy and bring back peace and prosperity to its citizens. With the help of Dr. Updale’s (Marisa Tomei) work, they are conducting a social experiment on Staten Island, where the law will be suspended for 12 hours on a single evening. They hope participants on the island can demonstrate to the world that large amounts of violent catharsis will help discourage crime and reduce poverty for the rest of the year. If successful this experiment will be made a national event, but first, they need willing participants. The NFFA incentivizes participation via monetary compensation. Although several individuals and groups don’t require any additional incentive to kill.
Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) is a drug kingpin on the island. He and his friend, Nya (Lex Scott Davis), remain on the island for different reasons. It doesn’t take long for Dmitri and his associates to realize the government will stop at nothing to make sure this social experiment is a success. It’s a race against time to save as many people as they can before it’s too late.
I think this is probably my favorite Purge movie since Anarchy. It has multiple characters, but really focuses on Dmitri and his anti-hero journey. You wouldn’t expect to be rooting for a drug dealer, but that’s what this movie makes you do. Dmitri tries to do right by his community, but he’s also poisoning it with his product and ruling by intimidation. Fortunately, he has plenty of opportunities throughout this movie to redeem himself.
Nya’s brother, Isaiah (Joivan Wade), is on his own mission of revenge. Two other characters worth mentioning are Dolores (Mugga) and Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), who are on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum in this movie. Skeletor is all psychotic rage and destruction, while Dolores is the mild, comic relief that deflates the tension with one surly or sarcastic remark. I found the presence of both to be a necessity. It gives a juxtaposition of someone who firmly embraces this new world order with an overzealous enthusiasm, and someone who can stay mentally healthy and not be taken down by it. Dolores provides that glimpse of respite from the horrors that come and go.
This movie has all the hallmarks of a well done John Carpenter action film. Every character has their own bad ass moment, and Dmitri gets the biggest bad ass moment of them all. His swagger and confidence on screen is a welcome presence. You’re not sure who makes it out alive, but you know they are going out swinging. Meanwhile, Marisa Tomei does a decent job in her role as The Architect for this social experiment. I do like that her character has some dimension to her, but I wished they gave her more to do than stand around analyzing results.
I did briefly mention that you have to suspend disbelief to get into this world, but the way they set up the Purge in this film is pretty convincing. They even use the current political climate as a template for allowing the legalization of inhumane atrocities. The more time has gone on, the less unbelievable it is. Although I still question the idea of eliminating a portion of the population to improve the economy. Who is left to run businesses when they’re all dead? It’s not a controlled kill number, of course, that is the true conceit of this event. It’s real intention is to rid society of minorities and the impoverished. There isn’t a lot of diversity in the offices of authority. Racism in particular, combined with poverty, is what truly drives their political agenda.
The First Purge is a great addition to the franchise, and offers a mix of gang violence, societal unrest, intense action sequences, racial tension, and terror. I enjoyed Y’lan Noel’s performance and his story arch. Some of the dialogue isn’t great, and I’d hoped they could provide more backstory to the world, but it works out all the same. I expect word of mouth to make this another successful sequel. When all hope seems lost, it’s nice to watch a group of disenfranchised citizens do everything they can to take back their streets.
About The First Purge
Synopsis: A prequel that focuses on the events that lead up to the very first Purge event.
Director: Gerard McMurray
Writer: James DeMonaco
Stars: Y’lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Mugga, Marisa Tomei, Luna Lauren Velez, Kristen Solis, Rotimi Paul, Steve Harris
Runtime: 1 Hour, 37 Minutes