By Jim Slotek
The real lesson of The First Purge is that some schlocky movie premises may be better left unexplained.
What began as basically an entertainingly nasty home invasion movie writ large, The Purge franchise had a simple, easy-to-digest anarchical conceit. To wit: In a dystopian future America, there’s one night a year when anybody - Including that guy coming up the street with an evil leer and a knife - can do anything, to you or anybody else.
The franchise hinted at sociopolitical intent with its third film The Purge: Election Year, but not as all-in as it is now.
Apparently in a move to shift the concept onto the small screen as a 10-episode series, writer James DeMonaco and director Gerard McMurray give us The First Purge, a racial stereotype-powered prequel that wraps the previously unexplained Purge in a ham-handed times-of-Trump fever-dream.
The bad guys here are the new government, a fascist, white, NRA-backed Christian party called the New Founding Fathers of America, that is basically looking for a way to target the underclass-of-colour with extreme prejudice (literally).
Their scheme: to present as a social experiment, a state of lawlessness on a mostly African-American Staten Island (with the implied expectation that “those people,” once freed from the rule of law, will simply go nuts and kill each other off).
(Oddly, this is the second movie in two weeks – Sicario: Day of the Soldado being the other - in which the U.S. government tries and fails to manipulate non-white "enemies" into kilingl each other.)
If committing a crime really “purged” the desire to do it again, there would be no repeat offenders. But the NFFA (try to say that without sounding like you’re stuttering – no one in the movie can) has its own pet academic to exploit. That would be Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), the “name” actor in the movie, whose single-note worried look suggests she’s thinking, “I’m an Oscar winner. What, am I going to be in a Sharknado movie next?”
Tomei, at one point, gives perhaps the most empty delivery of the line, “What have I done?” in film history. You want to yell, “Cut!” and get her to do it again.
Just as a clinical point, her experiment involves giving people who stay on the island money, and then the promise of more money if they commit crimes. (Verified by video contact lenses that makes all involved look demonic). Sooo… here’s a financial incentive to give us the results we want.
Meanwhile, back on the island, the homeys mostly aren’t playing (other than taking the money). There seems to be exactly one actual psychopath on Staten Island, the scar-faced Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), who prepares for his killing spree by cutting one of our heroes, a rookie drug-dealing teen named Isaiah (Joivan Wade). Meanwhile, the local good-hearted drug kingpin, Dmitri (Y'lan Noel), is calling for calm.
And in what is a legitimately funny moment, the recast Republicans of the NFFA watch in dismay on their video screens as the Black community reacts to the non-presence of police by holding a block party.
Thus, they go to Plan B, and send over troops of white mercenaries dressed like Klansmen, with armoured vehicles and high-powered weapons to help the killing along, so the experiment can be pronounced a success.
Which means that the movie’s frenetic last act is basically an inferior Attack The Block, but with gangstas fighting racist white invaders instead of carnivorous extraterrestrials.
Would that the movie had started there and skimmed that other stuff. Informed by elements of The Handmaid’s Tale (government news reports end with “Blessed be the New Founding Fathers”), false flags, event actors and enduring conspiracy theories about secret anti-black urban government programs involving crack and AIDS, The First Purge has a lot of narrative and unsubtle subtext to cram into a movie that’s barely 90 minutes long.
In fact, its big, violent finish notwithstanding, a lot of it is quite dull and its pacing inconsistent.
And for all that, there remains no logical explanation for why the entire nation - including white America - ended up embracing an annual purge.
The First Purge. Directed by Gerard McMurray, written by James DeMonaco. Starring Marisa Tomei, Y'lan Noeland Joivan Wade.