Director: Gerard McMurray
Cast: Y’Lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Steve Harris, Marisa Tomei
RunTime: 1 hr 38 mins
Rating: M18 (Violence and Sexual Scene)
Released By: UIP
Opening Day: 22 August 2018
Synopsis: Behind every tradition lies a revolution. Next Independence Day, witness the rise of our country’s 12 hours of annual lawlessness. Welcome to the movement that began as a simple experiment: The First Purge. To push the crime rate below one percent for the rest of the year, the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) test a sociological theory that vents aggression for one night in one isolated community. But when the violence of oppressors meets the rage of the marginalized, the contagion will explode from the trial-city borders and spread across the nation.
One night per year, where all manner of crime is legal, in order to allow citizens a cathartic means to let go of their inner rage. That was the simple but intriguing premise which James DeMonaco explored in a trilogy of violent B-movie thrillers that found socio-political relevance in its depiction of class and racial discrimination. As its title suggests, this fourth chapter in the franchise written again by DeMonaco but directed by newcomer Gerard McMurray goes back to the beginning, in order to explore just how the annual Purge came to be a hallowed American tradition.
At least that was the intention; in truth, much of what would have been interesting to see is dispensed with in a quick opening montage, namely the rise of the hard-right political party known as the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) arising from the socio-economic chaos of a plunging stock market, another housing crisis, spiralling unemployment and civil unrest. “The American dream is dead," the new President says to the people. "We will do whatever it takes to let you dream again.” And thanks to leading behavioural scientist Dr Updale (Marisa Tomei), the titular social experiment is born, with the President endorsing his chief of staff (Patch Darragh) to carry out the social experiment on Staten Island - presumably because poor people of colour are more likely to riot than affluent white ones and would therefore be in need of such a freeing experience.
Like the last three movies, ‘The First Purge’ unfolds largely within the 12 hours of a single Purge, or in this case the so-called Experiment. The very notion of the Experiment divides the impoverished black and Latino neighbourhood: there are those who vehemently oppose it, including drug lord Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) and his ex-girlfriend turned activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis); and there are those who seek to exploit the occasion for their own self-seeking ends, including Nya’s impulsive younger brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) and the stone-cold psycho Skeletor (Rotimi Paul). At first, the fight is pretty much within these characters, who either have a score to settle with someone else or are forced to save someone they love/ care about, but soon enough these residents realise that they are being systematically targeted by groups of heavily-armed cops, Klansmen and right-wing militia.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure that these mercenaries have been sent in by the NFFA in order to up the body count – and let’s just say the explicit imagery of white supremacists, a rubber blackface mask worn by a white soldier or a mercenary leader wearing a Gestapo-slash-bondage outfit is no coincidence. Heck, the filmmakers even make it so blatantly obvious by re-purposing a line from President Trump’s ‘Access Hollywood’ tape. There is no subtlety or nuance to the subtext, although we suspect many may tend to agree that there is no need for such restraint in today’s political day and age.
Nevertheless, what holds the film back from being sharp allegory is not how bluntly but how shallowly it develops its own dystopian concept, that doesn’t go much further than unleashing the same violence and bloodshed upon its White terrorisers. Most of the film therefore becomes a numbing cycle of pursuit and evasion, attack and counter-attack, frenzied stabbings followed by rounds of automatic gunfire. Even as throwback to the sort of unabashedly violent B-movies John Carpenter was synonymous with in the 70s and 80s, ‘The First Purge’ lacks the rhythm, momentum and much less excitement to sustain itself or its audience’s interest for its hour-and-a-half duration.
Whereas the earlier two ‘Purge’ sequels could rely on the raw magnetism of its lead star Frank Grillo, the cast of mostly unknowns largely fail to register. The only exception is Noel, who briefly comes alive in the drawn-out finale where he shifts into Rambo mode and delivers a cracker-jack three-way beatdown on a winding staircase. It doesn’t help that their characters are pretty much defined by their staccato diatribes which DeMonaco seems to have penned while under some stupor, undermining what credulity or authenticity one might have been willing to extend to them.
Frankly, there isn’t much more that this chapter says which hasn’t already been covered in the preceding trilogy, leaving one to wonder if DeMonaco is just milking his idea to death, especially since there is already a drama series planned. This one seems even more gory than its predecessors, as if straining to leave an impression. Alas, ‘The First Purge’ doesn’t at all develop its starting premise in any new or interesting direction, coming off as pure shlock masquerading as topically relevant commentary. Perhaps this should just as well be the final purge, because we sure as hell ain’t looking forward to the next one at all.
(Three movies in, this dystopian socio-political horror seems to have purged its well of ideas and inspiration, and this prequel is no better than B-movie shlock)
Review by Gabriel Chong