Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and God Hates Geeks.
Drug Dealers to the Rescue!
It’s kind of amusing to see James DeMonaco, writer and director of every film in The Purge franchise to date, allow someone else to step in as the director of The First Purge as DeMonaco only wrote and produced the prequel. Directed by the relatively unknown Gerard McMurray (associate producer of Fruitvale Station), The First Purge details the events of how the purge came to be. The nation has become overpopulated and the government is trying to figure out a way to thin out the masses. The purge is introduced and the government takes drastic measures to make sure that the purge is a successful experiment. The funny aspect of DeMonaco taking a lesser role for The First Purge is that the prequel takes place in Staten Island, New York and DeMonaco is currently filming Once Upon a Time in Staten Island, which co-stars Frank Grillo who starred in The Purge: Anarchy and The Purge: Election Year.
The First Purge is built around Nya (Lex Scott Davis, Superfly) and her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade, Doctor Who). Nya leads protests against participating in the purge while Isaiah secretly wants to purge to save face after embarrassing himself while selling drugs without his sister’s knowledge. The siblings live in a rundown apartment and struggle to make ends meet. Isaiah sells drugs for Nya’s ex-boyfriend and Staten Island’s biggest drug lord Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel), but is humiliated by a psychotic drug fiend known as Skeletor (Rotimi Paul, Sleepy Hollow). The government is offering financial compensation for simply staying home during the purge, but there are also bonuses for participating. Nya wants to save as many people as possible, Isaiah wants revenge against Skeletor, and Dmitri wants his business to stay afloat.
The government now rests in the hands of the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA). Arlo Sabian (Patch Sabbagh, Everything Sucks!), the Chief of Staff, supervises all activity during the purge. Those who signed up to receive financial compensation were given a pair of contacts that record everything on the night of the purge. The entire concept was designed by an architect named Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), whose only personality trait is drinking coffee and denying political involvement; this is a science experiment and nothing more.
Another funny little side note is that they managed to squeeze in a poster for the upcoming Halloween reboot due in theaters in October, which is also a Blumhouse film. The First Purge is loaded with a cast that no one has ever seen or heard of, so this back story revolves around characters that you don’t care about. Nobody returns from the previous films and these new characters are so lifeless that you’re practically begging for the killing to begin so the numbers of these boring turds actually begin to dwindle. The film attempts to throw in a sassy character named Dolores (Mugga, Orange is the New Black), who is only around to spew one-liners about boring sermons, stealing booze, and having, “the bubble guts,” dribble in her pants at the worst possible time. Performances are lame and forgetful at best with Rotimi Paul’s Skeletor being the most memorable for all the wrong reasons. Paul’s insistence to go back and forth between a deep voiced growl and high pitched squeal whenever he speaks is annoying. The Skeletor character arc is as erratic as the character as it literally goes nowhere.
The dystopian action horror prequel seems to glorify drug dealers. Dmitri and his crew suddenly become the heroes of the film solely because a greedy drug lord doesn’t know how to stop being in love with an ex-girlfriend. The most loyal individuals in the film are the supposed, “family,” that Dmitri pays. Despite every crime being legal for 12 consecutive hours, individuals still wear masks or hide their faces in some way. The film attempts to add another element to this with a half-cocked twist that involves the government taking matters into their own hands to make the purge a success. The film sees it as an opportunity to cram some racist imagery into its story for no reason whatsoever. Some of the costumes worn in the film resemble SS officers and there is literally a truckload of purging participants dressed as the KKK. These individuals are only introduced for our drug dealing heroes to wipe out later and seem more heroic in the process.
The only reason to see a Purge film is for the kills and the violence and The First Purge lacks any originality or creativity when it comes to those aspects. The most impressive action sequence is a Dmitri fight in a stairwell that seems second or third rate when compared to the stairwell sequence in Daredevil. Everything else resorts to CGI blood splatters. The film attempts to be about a community coming together at the worst of times despite their financial status. The purge is supposedly a freeing violence that is for the good of our country; an effort to fix how broken society has become. However what we get is a ruffian in a sewer drain with a crying baby doll head in his mouth targeting Nya’s genitalia, two siblings who get matching neck wounds, a drug dealer fighting off two rabid prostitutes, and a syringe obsessed lunatic who gets more than a little stabby at raves.
The First Purge is a stale and redundant entry in a franchise that has overstayed its welcome. It will feel even less relevant once the 10-episode television series begins on September 4th, which takes place ten years after the first purge and will air on USA and SyFy. If there was an option to purge yourself over any more entries in this franchise, then it would quite possibly end up being a fate that is less painful than a mediocre action horror franchise that refuses to die. Overwhelmed with bad performances, a predictable story, and run-of-the-mill violence, The First Purge adds nothing to a franchise that originally had some potential and talent.
© 2018 Chris Sawin