A Prequel to the "Purge" Series - The First Purge - Review

A Prequel to the “Purge” Series – The First Purge – Review

A prequel to the ‘Purge’ series, and the first one set in the inner city, is a threadbare exploitation film that still manages to pack a timely punch

A Prequel to the "Purge" Series - The First Purge - Review

In “The First Purge,” the National Founding Fathers of America — they’re the kind of fascists who pretend not to be — launch an audacious (or maybe it’s just sick) experiment in state-controlled chaos: a 12-hour zone of anything-goes bedlam in which the crimes you commit, from petty theft to brutal murder, are all legal. It’s an experiment that treats the people who participate in it as human lab rats, and those who designed it choose what they believe to be the perfect homicidal playground: Staten Island, the least sexy and most self-contained borough of New York City. If the experiment “works” (i.e., if it proves that there are enough people out there who seriously want to f— each other up), then the NFFA will take it national.

As the Purge begins, a cackling psychopath named Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), who has a shaved head, a crazed grin, a set of African tribal scars, and the popping eyes of a zombie, holds up a man at an ATM and goes nuts with his dagger. A drug kingpin named Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), who is cool, calm, and collected, has to fend off an attempted coup by one of his lieutenants, who has lined up a couple of ladies to seduce and purge the boss. The plan doesn’t work, and Dimitri winds up purging him.

A Prequel to the "Purge" Series - The First Purge - Review

It is, in other words (nudge, nudge), a typical night in the hood.

One of the semi-jokes of the “Purge” films, with their hooky set-ups, their mostly cruddy lighting and staging, and their “Clockwork Orange”-meets-Roger Corman graze-Z nihilism, is that they’re rooted in a preening sort of “sociology” that’s tuned into the zeitgeist but, at the same time, comes off as more than a little mindless.

That’s true of this prequel as well. It’s the first “Purge” film to be set in the inner city, and that allows it to play off the notion that the government is only too eager to trash the lives of African-Americans, in a way that echoes the social paranoia of the ’70s and ’80s, when the heroin and crack epidemics were believed by many to be the deliberate fallout of racist government policies — a way of narcotizing the underclass.

On Staten Island, where the action clusters around the Park Hill Towers housing projects, each of the Purge participants gets $5,000, with the price set to go up the more mayhem they commit. They wear video contact lenses that give them the look of iridescent-eyed aliens, and everything that happens is broadcast, with a kind of lip-smacking “Hunger Games” breathlessness, by the national news media. But if there’s a message buried in there somewhere, one that’s designed to power a B-movie for the age of Black Lives Matter, “The First Purge” isn’t without its own whiff of exploitation.

A Prequel to the "Purge" Series - The First Purge - Review‘The First Purge’

Reviewed at AMC Empire, New York, July 2, 2018. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 97 MIN.

Director: Gerard McMurray
With: Lex Scott Davis, Y’lan Noel, Joivan Wade, Marisa Tomei, Rotimi Paul, Mugga, Patch Darragh, Luna Lauren Velez, Mo McRae.
Release Date: Jul 4, 2018

PRODUCTION: A Universal Pictures release of a Blumhouse Productions, Perfect World Pictures, Platinum Dunes production. Producers: Jason Blum, Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Bradley Fuller, Sebastien Lemercier, James DeMonaco. Executive producers: Steven R. Molen, Couper Samuelson, Jeanette Brill.

CREW: Director: Gerard McMurray. Screenplay: James DeMonaco. Camera (color, widescreen): Anastas N. Michos. Editor: Jim Page. Music: Kevin Lax.

WITH: Lex Scott Davis, Y’lan Noel, Joivan Wade, Marisa Tomei, Rotimi Paul, Mugga, Patch Darragh, Luna Lauren Velez, Mo McRae.

It’s likely that the film’s Purge-in-the-hood concept had more than a little to do with the success that Blumhouse, the franchise’s key production company, enjoyed with “Get Out.” Yet if a “Purge” film built around the lives of African-Americans seems a totally good idea, and is more than likely to prove a commercial one, coming from Blumhouse it only highlights the difference between the two films. “Get Out” was a thriller with a devious texture, rooted in social and psychological experience. “The First Purge” is a slipshod dystopian pulp comic book rooted in gangbanger clichés. It’s a threadbare “Boyz N the Hood” meets “Lord of the Flies.”

The latest, which indicates the creative forces behind the series have been running out of ideas, is set in an inner-city community on Staten Island where the newly elected (not Democrat or Republican) U.S. government, New Founding Fathers of America, has declared a local experiment largely among the poor and impoverished African American and Latino citizenry who are encouraged to sign up for the “Purge” and be paid a minimum of $5000 if they don alien-looking contact lenses and hit the streets where anything goes during those 12 hours.

The architect of this idea (Marisa Tomei) designed it as a moment where all morality is dissolved into a base desire to kill your neighbor. It is a social experiment disguised by a nefarious government whose real goal is to set the poor against the poor and rid America of those they consider undesirable. In just five years since this series began, the concept sadly is not as far-fetched as it sounds, particularly in a country currently detaining immigrants in detention centers and separating families from each other before deportation. (On its most basic level, The First Purge could be a wild idea pitched by some nutcase with a White House job.)

A Prequel to the "Purge" Series - The First Purge - Review

Storywise, the cast is led by drug dealer Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), who likes his life of simple crime and does not intend to hit the streets during the Purge. But circumstances turn him into a leader of the resistance especially when ex-girlfriend Nya (Lex Scott Davis), a community organizer, needs his and his gang’s expertise to help when her younger brother Isiah (Joivan Wade) foolishly signs up and immediately gets into some deep sh*t. Dmitri realizes he can’t sit back and watch as the live televised images show government troops and police moving in when things careen out of control.

The fact is that evil Chief of Staff Arlo Sabian (Patch Darrah, doing his best impression of an unfeeling D.C. bureaucrat) needs chaos for this idea to succeed and has secretly sent in mercenaries, the Ku Klux Klan and god knows who else to essentially provoke a race war. This dystopic vision of a hate-driven America was headache-inducing for me this time around, and a bit depressing. Maybe that’s because this little B-horror movie piece of sci-fi isn’t just a low-rent imitation of Clockwork Orange, but that it is now not entirely implausible after Charlottesville, the immigration crisis, and other facts of current life.

A Prequel to the "Purge" Series - The First Purge - Review

Or, maybe that is just what James DeMonaco, the writer-director of the first three movies, would have us think: that this is all more important than just a low-budget box office grab. He wrote this script too (but handed the reins to the workmanlike direction of Gerard McMurray) and does seem to want us to believe the have-nots in America’s poorest communities are ready to stand up and fight for what’s right against an increasingly corrupt government, which told them the American Dream was dead and that it was going to bring it back to life. Whether it is all an allegory in some ways for President Donald Trump’s MAGA — and a backlash to it — is up to the viewer to surmise. Some of the characters, such as Rotimi Paul’s psychotic neighborhood bully Skeletor, are so cartoonish it can be difficult to take any of it seriously, although I admit I was uncomfortable watching much of this exercise, which revels in pointless violence, needless and endless uses of the N-word and a showcase for the biggest, most easily available guns around lovingly photographed in vivid closeups — the NRA won’t be complaining.

The powers behind this may think this blood-fest is also some sort of message movie for our times, and indeed America has changed since 2013, but it seems that with the frequency these movies are being turned out that the Purge franchise also allows the filmmakers to get their rocks off with their own annual cinematic purge. If you have any doubt, stick around for the end credits that feature a commercial for a new 10-part Purge TV series (I thought it was a joke until I remembered Syfy and USA Network are indeed launching it for real in the fall). If you hoped The First Purge would be the last, think again; it’s coming right to your living room. Happy 4th of July.

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