The First Purge is the fourth film in the series and serves as a prequel, taking us back to the beginning and to see how this new American tradition began. If you are not familiar with the concept, the Purge is one day a year where, for 12 hours, any crime (up to and including murder) is legal. The First Purge shows us how this all began; and for the most part it succeeds.
Series creator James DeMonaco handed over the reins for this one to director Gerard McMurray and contented himself with writing duties. The story revolves around neighbourhood crime baron/drug dealer Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), his former girlfriend Nya (Lex Scott Davis), her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) and their attempts to make it through the Purge alive. At this point in the timeline, the Purge is referred to as “the experiment”, overseen by the ruling “New Founding Fathers of America” party – which comes across as a barely-veiled reference to a certain Mr Trump’s Administration – and psychologist Dr Updale (Marisa Tomei), the architect of the experiment.
Money is offered to encourage people to remain while the experiment plays out; and even more money is offered if people are willing to go out and “participate”. Their actions will be recorded and broadcast through the use of high-tech contact lenses that make people’s eyes glow blue or orange and is an effective disturbing visual trick, even if it is never developed much past “it makes people look even more creepy”.
Of course, as we have likely all seen in the trailers, things don’t go according to plan. The poor people of Staten Island would apparently all rather stay home or have street parties leading to military forces being deployed posing as citizens to stir things up by any means necessary. Cue appearances from white supremacists, the Hell’s Angels, the KKK and even a rather interesting BDSM Gestapo officer near the end. The citizens fight back as best they can and the violence escalates until the entire island is consumed.
Where the first Purge movie was a twist on the home invasion genre, the following three have all taken us out onto the streets, showing us what else happens during Purge Night. The movies have grown increasingly political over each sequel and this time inspiration is blatantly taken from real life events. Themes of political collusion, police brutality, attitudes to black culture and classism, to name but a few, are hammered home with all the subtlety of the Titanic hitting an iceberg.
As in previous instalments, the action set pieces are strongly presented and enjoyably visceral. Although they are slightly let down by glaringly obvious CGI blood and a bizarre decision later on to use CGI on a mattress that was meant to be on fire. Apparently Hollywood can no longer afford squibs or corn syrup and food colouring.
The performances are universally strong with the one exception being “Skeletor” (Rotimi Paul) who chews so much scenery that it almost descends into parody, not helped by the fact that many of his scenes are shot so close up that you can count every pore on his face. Both Y’lan Noel and Lex Scott Davis are relative newcomers to the movie industry and we can hope that their performances here help them on to bigger and better things. Special mention must also be given to “The Three Wise Men” (Steven Harris, Derek Basco and D.K. Bowser) who steal every scene they’re in.
The Purge is a curious series: one part mindless wish fulfilment, one part gratuitous violence, sprinkled with an increasingly thick layer of social commentary. You have to admire writer James DeMonaco’s attempts to flesh out the original into its own cinematic world, building on the lore of the Purge with every subsequent offering. However, we’ve seen this all before. The masks, the slogans, the violence, minority characters railing against social injustice; it’s already been done. More needs to be brought to the table for the nigh-inevitable sequel if The Purge hopes to truly carve out a niche for itself in cinematic history.