Is it too much to wish that, having lucked into box-office success with movies that didn’t come close to fully exploiting their provocative premise, the Purge series would get better as it goes? Despite the assistance reality continues to give it, making an annual rite of government-sanctioned racial violence seem less far-fetched by the day (or by the tweet), Gerard McMurray’s The First Purge still fails to establish a persuasive connection to our own moment in time — its occasional winks to current events serving as limp zingers instead of stinging commentary. Though its action and few novel elements may satisfy many of those who’re willing to pay for a fourth visit to this unconvincing dystopia, series creator James DeMonaco (serving only as screenwriter here) appears to be running out of ideas for the franchise.
Having tried on three familiar idioms in three previous installments — the home-under-siege thriller; a John Carpenter-influenced survival-on-the-streets obstacle course; and a protect-the-politician mission whose happy ending promised (as much as sequel-hungry filmmakers will ever promise) an end to all this terrible Purge nonsense — number four suggests an origin story, explaining how America allowed this implausible ritual to begin. Well, sort of: Though it does introduce some of those who created the Purge and observe as a few tentative stabs at cathartic violence grow into an all-night bloodbath, it hardly gives a satisfying portrait of the villains referred to in previous pictures as the “New Founding Fathers of America,” who, after all, are responsible for all this.
In its first year, we learn, what will become a nationwide ritual begins as a very local “Experiment”: Ostensibly looking for ways to curb out-of-control crime and burn off pent-up anger, the fundamentalist regime governing America latches onto the theories of a scientist, Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), who thinks that giving populations a temporary free pass to misbehave will encourage pro-social behavior in the long run. To put “The Architect”‘s theories to the test, the powers that be choose a densely populated environment that is easily isolated: Staten Island.
This is not the Staten Island whose working-class white majority made it the only borough of New York City to vote for Donald Trump. As seen in The First Purge, this is a place the government sees as, well, “infested” by people of color. All our protagonists are black or Latina, either living in poverty or making a fortune off drugs. Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) is in the latter camp, king of his large crew. When the government suddenly suggests that any citizen can break the law for one night, he plans to hunker down indoors, with his property well guarded, and let the amateurs play.
Across town, Dmitri’s onetime girlfriend Nya (Lex Scott Davis) is community-minded, joining neighbors at a church that aims to shelter the powerless who prefer not to play the government’s nasty game. But Nya’s gentle-seeming brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) has been seduced: He sees this Experiment as a way to rid himself of a bully called Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), a broadly-drawn black psychopath right out of right-wing nightmares. Isaiah has learned that the Founding Fathers (NFFA) are quietly offering Staten Islanders incentives to cut loose tonight: Officials are giving would-be purgers contact-lens cameras that will record their deeds, and promising to pay for “greater participation” in the experiment. Translation: We’ll pay you to exterminate members of your class.
This supposedly secret racial-cleansing agenda behind the Purge was made explicit, for anybody who didn’t get it from the start, in 2016’s The Purge: Election Year. This time out, the only real surprise is that the woman who came up with the Purge didn’t understand what her bosses had in mind. Once the klaxons wail and the Experiment begins, Dr. Updale and a puffy Administration official (Patch Darragh) watch hundreds of video feeds, waiting to track the course of the night’s violence. Updale is surprised to find that people don’t just start killing their neighbors immediately. In fact, a lot of them are partying: Understanding that most of their fellow humans don’t want to kill them, people are throwing big block parties whose most law-breaking ingredients are mood-altering substances and, perhaps, some public indecency.
But violence is coming to this night, thanks to the NFFA. With the locals they’ve encouraged to go wild behaving too timidly, they unleash armies of mercenaries who are dressed up like white nationalists and other local-grown creeps; these well-armed men get the smell of blood in the air by, for instance, storming that aforementioned church and killing everyone they can. Eventually, Dmitri will realize there’s an outside element trying to incite civil war on his island, and he’ll jump into the fray — stripping to his undershirt and becoming a one-man army as he goes to rescue Nya and company from her cinder-block apartment in the projects. (Many of this sequence’s action beats remind one of 2011’s vastly superior Attack the Block, where low-income Brits fend off their own invading army and manage to say something about race and class while they’re at it.)
Like its mediocre predecessors, The First Purge really wants to get credit for being on the right side of the class war; like them, it feels like something conceived in a dorm room by kids whose professors have just given them their first taste of what’s wrong with American democracy. Here, McMurray and DeMonaco cheapen real-world terrors several times: Their cartoon killers dress up in Klan hoods and in the guise of menacing cops; they wear blackface masks and quasi-Nazi regalia, and on occasion the film thinks it’s doing us a favor by showing someone in such garb getting the life squashed out of him. This feels hollow for many reasons, one of which is the fact that, four movies in, The Purge really displays no interest in the real horrors it exaggerates for our popcorn-munching amusement. The New Founding Fathers remain a threat so thinly drawn and remote we can hardly be bothered to hate them, much less fear them, much less connect their policies to those of people in our own world who might happily let the poor kill each other off so long as they wouldn’t be blamed for it. As disappointing as the Purge films are as entertainment, their failure to sneak some little spark of insight into all that pulpy class warfare is what really makes the series worth euthanizing.
Production companies: Platinum Dunes, Blumhouse, Man in a Tree
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Y’lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Jovian Wade, Steve Harris, Marisa Tomei, Rotimi Paul
Director: Gerard McMurray
Screenwriter: James DeMonaco
Producers: Jason Blum, Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Sebastien K. Lemercier
Executive producers: James DeMonaco, Steven R. Molen, Jeanette Volturno, Couper Samuelson
Director of photography: Anastas Michos
Production designer: Sharon Lomofsky
Costume designer: Amela Baksic
Editor: Jim Page
Composer: Kevin Lax
Casting directors: Terri Taylor, Sarah Domeier, Christine Kromer
R, 97 minutes