The Purge series has always been a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. While I was initially disappointed with the first film not living up to the strength of its premise I realized watching the follow-up, The Purge: Anarchy, that The Purge are B-level exploitation films that are gleefully violent while wearing its politics on its sleeve. There isn’t much subtle about The Purge movies but I think they know that. Once I figured out what they were, I enjoyed every entry that was put out into theaters. They have never been great but I sure do have fun watching them.
The First Purge (which is really not a smart title) is more of the same. This is a fun, violent, heavy-handed, B-level action flick that isn’t as well done as Leigh Whannell’s B-level sci-fi flick Upgrade but it works just enough to be worth a trip to the theater.
Like the title suggests this is a prequel to the entire series. The First Purge (seriously can’t it be called something else?) takes place entirely on Staten Island. After the election of the New Founding Fathers Party, they decide to try an experiment confined to only Staten Island where all crime is legal for 12 hours. The people who stay on the island are paid hefty sums to participate but unbeknownst to the people on the island whether they participate in the Purge or not the Purge will be successful and the New Founding Fathers will make sure of that.
Each Purge movie has gotten more and more political. Some will enjoy that and others will not. The movies have gotten more interesting for me since they have delved more into the politics of this world. The First Purge continues that tread and deals more with the racial implications of The Purge. Nearly all the main characters are people of color and many of the villains are white supremacist militia. This delves more into the original intent of the purge which has been explored from a distance in other sequels. I found myself wanting more of that at the beginning of the movie. Wisely this doesn’t jump directly into everyone acting like a psycho, people sit around and wonder are people actually going to participate? There is a growing sense of dread for the audience because we know there is only one outcome.
This time the Purge movie is directed by Gerard McMurray. This is the first in the series to not be directed by James DeMonaco (although he stays on as the writer). McMurray doesn’t miss much of a beat keeping the style similar to DeMonaco and being consistent with the rest of the series. His action gets progressively more violent and stages some well-done fight scenes (particularly one on a stairwell). You can tell he is having fun with every single brutal kill in this movie and is able to pause that instinct for violence when he has to work more on an emotional level (although the movie does stumble over its more emotional beats).
Gerard seems more restrained than DeMonaco. This could be a story choice given that we are in the earliest stages of The Purge while the sequels exist in a world where the Purge was the norm. There is far less theatrics than what the series is used too. From a word building standpoint, it makes sense. But there are still some horror elements including an over the top crazy character named Skeletor (who fits perfectly into this world).
The characters are functional and while aren’t that interesting they are likeable. You do want to see them live through the night. Lex Scott Davis is a very likeable protagonist as Nya. She is a is one of the many activists against the purge and she stays behind to help out her community. All the characters are all seemingly connected and know each other. This is a nice change from some of the sequels where everyone is a stranger. There is a strong sense of community built into the DNA of this movie which makes the relationships better defined. Y’lan Noel is strong as the neighborhood gangster who rises up to defend his streets against the purge. The government characters are however very boring. You would think to rally the country together over this insane and crazy idea that is the Purge your leaders need to be more charismatic. Marisa Tomei looks like she was sleepwalking through this movie.
The First Purge isn’t much different than previous Purge movies. There are some different perspectives and somewhat fresh takes on the formula with The First Purge but it is still very much a Purge movie. If you weren’t a fan of the previous ones than this one certainly isn’t going to convince you nor convert you. As someone who enjoys this series this is certainly exactly what I was looking for. The dialogue is rough, the politics are a bit heavy handed and there are some bizarre editing choices but for all those things wrong with The First Purge, it is undeniably a fun, violent and a crazy ride of insanity. The action is exciting and the blood sprays quite liberally. It has just enough smarts to make you ponder something for a few moments before relaxing your brain and give into your own violent urges and enjoy the large amounts of creative violence on display. This is more restrained and low scale than other Purge movies without becoming too confined like the original Purge was (I also can’t call the original Purge the first Purge movie anymore). This is B-level charm done well and I welcome more. But seriously couldn’t they have called this like The Purge: Island or The Purge: Origins? Anything but The First Purge?