There’s something absolutely wonderful about having a horror franchise that’s so blatantly political as The Purge series is, and how it gives voice to the fears of the dispossessed in a way that’s both massively entertaining and also horrifyingly accurate about how it feels to exist in the world today. That means conservative types looking for a quick and jaunty escape to the movies to indulge in survivalist fantasies should probably stay away from Gerald McMurray’s The First Purge, as it’s a pretty searing indictment of our modern political hellscape, full of fire, brimstone and hot lead going through the chests of racist and fascist thugs (though I imagine they’d be most upset by a reference to “pussy-grabbing” at one point). It’s appropriately terrifying at certain points and cathartic at others, but it never once lets its targets off the hook and relishes in skewering them in as many ways as possible. It’s a colossally entertaining mid-level blockbuster, one with something on its mind and some real meaning behind its eyes.
Instead of invalidating the end of The Purge: Election Year, McMurray and series creator Gerald DeMonaco head back to the past, to when a nationwide Purge Night — in which crime is legalized for 12 hours, one day a year, to allow the lower classes to be culled — was just a glimmer in a government bureaucrat’s eye. That fascist government, headed up by the New Founding Fathers Party, which seized power after civic unrest, is about to test out their theories of “purging” and its effects on Staten Island, which is, naturally, rebelling against the idea, outside of your garden-variety psychopaths who sign up for the cash or for the chance to kill indiscriminately. The architect of this experiment, Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), is careful to say that she’s not hoping for this to succeed for any reason related to politics, but the Government wants results, human nature be damned (Staten Island is more likely to party than to murder each other, after all). So, they’ve hired mercenaries to infiltrate the Island’s lowest income communities to start shit, and start shit they will.
Our three main characters in this tale are Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel), a powerful drug dealer who has roots in the community, Nya (Lex Scott Davis), an activist looking to stop the Purge from taking place, and Isaiah (Jovian Wade), Nya’s brother, a student who slings rock for spare cash until he’s attacked and embarrassed by a crazed junkie named Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) on his block and decides that participating in the Purge will allow him to enact his revenge on that psycho. Dmitri’s arc is the most compelling of the three, which sees him go from community ruiner (Nya at one point calls him out for “wrecking the community 364 days a year,” which, well, she’s not wrong!) to badass action hero, but Isaiah’s is unexpectedly fascinating as well. What would motivate a reasonable person to join in on this carnage? Is petty revenge worth all of this? And, finally, does the presence of a poster in Isaiah’s room for the Halloween sequel coming out this fall establish that the Purge film series is canon in the Purge cinematic universe?
Despite an early reliance on the worst aspects of its forbearers — goofy “horror” imagery ripped straight from the most boring creepypasta -— The First Purge gets almost nauseatingly intense once the mercenaries are turned loose on the Staten Island streets, and it’s there that the film sheds a lot of those vestigial elements. Gone are the goofy masks and the trailer-friendly “creepiness” (a scene in which a character is forced to run through a street full of exploding dolls feels totally out of place with what’s to come later on in the film), and they’re replaced by today’s nightmare fuel: white-shirt and khaki-clad angry white men, klansman, Nazi militias. And, in true genre fashion, we’re given the cathartic chance to watch some of these people get plugged in a lengthy sequence that takes equal influence from both The Raid: Redemption and Die Hard, the latter directly homaged in Noel’s outfit of choice. When that tonal shift comes, the movie becomes blissfully engaging, and the last hour speeds by in climactic fashion.
Are there things I’d change about this movie? Hell yeah, there are. For one, McMurray completely wastes Tomei in a role that might have played well to her strengths, had she been given the ability to, you know, actually be a villain. The action sequences, though better defined than in DeMonaco’s installments of the franchise, have an over-reliance on CGI blood splatter (perhaps necessitated by the budget) that ranges from the alright-looking to the downright campy. Finally, I wish these movies valued economy as much as the 2013 original does (also, how much does it suck that we can’t say “the first Purge” in order to refer to that film anymore), which got its story in a scant hour and 20 minutes and spent little time bullshitting, as the sequels have all done in their own way. Here, it’s all in the build-up, where so many precious moments are wasted on building the conspiracy when they could be spent on the characters. There’s a fun ensemble here, and I would have liked to see the film believe in their talents more.
Despite all of that, The First Purge is a worthy continuation of the perpetually topical horror franchise, one that manages to escape all of the normal trappings that have wrecked so many prequels in the past. It’s an occasionally horrifying action-thriller that wants to provoke you in to feeling terrible about the state of our world today, that wants you to take stock of all the awful things happening around you and to measure them against this dystopian future. But perhaps best of all, it finally turns over one of the genre’s most popular modern series to people of color, both in front of the camera and behind it, and it finds an unexpected potency in doing so. By the end, when the smoke is clearing over Staten Island, and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” kicks in over the credits, there’s a profound feeling of endurance, of a refusal to capitulate to the tyrannical forces of history that produces monstrous events like this fictional world’s Purge Night or the bevy of horrors confronted by marginalized people every day in ours. It’s a melancholy ending for these characters, but a testament to their — and the film’s — resiliency.