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Movie Review: The First Purge

This Fourth of July weekend unleash the beast with The First Purge. Image used from usatoday.com

Five years ago The Purge was released in theaters. Though brushed off by many, myself included, as a standard home invasion film with a ridiculous premise, it went on to gross an unbelievable amount of money which of course began one of the most successful franchises in film history. Despite it’s weak start the sequels Anarchy and Election Year established themselves as more then a silly premise, cementing themselves with not just entertaining sequences of action and horror but having strong characters and excellent social and political commentary. Unfortunately under this current illegitimate administration The Purge films have become too painfully relevant. With so much fresh political ammo we now get to witness the rise of this violent holiday with The First Purge. Can it be as good as it’s last two predecessors or has rot finally set in?

 

One would think a prequel would have a rather weak story. We already get the idea of how The Purge came to be and we know the best our heroes can do is simply survive the night. However, once again writer James DeMonaco manages to not only make an engaging story but also packs a one, two wallop with his commentary. The story begins not long after The New Founding Fathers of America have taken control of America, thanks to a terrible recession and immense backing from the NRA (only a few minutes in and it’s already painfully relevant). To execute their master plan of killing off the lower and middle class so as to cut programs and line their own pockets the NFFA enlists the help of a sociologist named Dr. Updale to test the first Purge on Staten Island. This is met with strong resistance from many of the people who live in Staten Island led by a young woman named Nya, however many remain due to need of money that the regime offers. Right off the bat DeMonaco uses the news and scandals we witness every day to build a painfully relevant yet engaging base to the film. The story moves at a relatively slow pace, carefully showing how the first Purge happened and where it all goes from here. This works in the film’s favor as not only does it build some tension but allows itself to do more then show people surviving and psychopaths purging. It shows that initially people used The Purge to commit vandalism and block parties, the mass murder is only due to the NFFA’s intervention adding yet another level to the film’s commentary. This all boils down to an explosive third act that acts as an immensely entertaining cap to a thought provoking and culturally relevant story.

 

The characters for The First Purge are a mixed bag

 

Nya is a good lead for a Purge film. She’s a typical character we’ve seen in these films before: caring, compassionate, wanting whats best for everyone. Not exactly original but in a film where the government  and an army of blood thirsty lunatics want to kill everyone they can get their hands on it’s nice to have a more humane lead to balance it all out. Nya’s brother Isaiah is also a good character. By the third act he begins to blend in to the background as he falls within the group fighting to survive, but for a while he has his own little story arch through attempting to kill a violent man who assaulted him. The story that follows him briefly is fairly interesting and leads to some truly unsettling moments which adds a nice bit of horror that’s been missing from this franchise for quite some time.

 

Dmitri is an interesting character. A violent drug dealer, he could have easily been turned into a secondary antagonist. The film however decides to turn him into a co-lead as Dmitri does everything he can to save his home and his neighbors, bravely battling against the forces of the NFFA like an 80’s action hero. It’s quite a fun and uplifting sight to behold.

 

A violent man simply named Skeletor serves as our secondary antagonist and I must say he’s perhaps the most frightening villain the series ever had. He’s needlessly vicious, attacking anyone he crosses and in one moment when he’s pursuing Isaiah he feels almost enigmatic, being everyone and nowhere in his rapturous chase.

 

Unfortunately many of the characters couldn’t have this same amount of depth and interest. Some of Dmitri’s associates could have been very interesting, one of which a young woman named Blaise, as well as three wonderfully comedic yet brave men named Freddy, Taz and Sharpie could have all added so much to the story. Sadly there’s little to no focus on them so they can’t grow or even be established as characters and thus we lose a lot. Even Dr. Updale, who’s marketed as being sympathetic, does hardly anything and thus comes off as a largely uninteresting and useless character. It truly is a shame as there’s so much all of these characters could have offered the film.

 

Acting for The First Purge is well done

 

Lex Scott Davis and Joivan Wade doe very well as Nya and Isaiah. Both are very strong both apart and together and have their own moments to shine, Davis early on with her protests as well as having a truly excellent moment where she takes a hilarious jab at the Orange oaf in office and Wade while he’s caught out in the Purge.

 

If there’s one star that deserves to have a massive break out because of this film it’s Y’lan Noel. For most of the film Noel has a commanding presence as Dmitri managing to give quite moving moments when he’s comforting Nya and being intimidating when he has to do business. But it’s when everything goes to hell in a hand basket that he really shines. Noel fits the mold of an action hero perfectly, flowing perfectly in his action sequences. If Hollywood allows it I would love for him to become the next big action star, he would do well and deserves it.

 

Rotimi Paul gives an excellent performance as Skeletor. Paul is incredibly frightening and it is clear he enjoys his sadistic role with each and every moment. Like Noel his performance is very memorable and captivating.

 

Marisa Tomei comes off as unmemorable as Dr. Updale. With little to do with such a bland character she can’t do much to make her presence known or even wanted.

 

Mugga, I’m sorry I can’t seem to find her real name anywhere, plays Dolores a friend of Nya. Mugga’s performance is done well and a more light hearted character she brings a much needed comedic performance to the film. Her humor is effective and much needed in the more bleak moments of the film.

 

The action for The First Purge is very entertaining

 

The action sequence for The First Purge are some of the finest the franchise has ever had. They’re mainly used in the third act and though we have to wait it’s well worth it. The action has a nice bit of stylization with plenty of energy and visceral carnage to go with it. The cinematography and editing is very sharp and well done as evident in a scene with a splendid single take that was just wonderful. For this film Gerard McMurray, who’s only other credit is a smaller drama on Netflix,  is given the directing reigns for this installment and honestly I would rather for as long as the franchise lasts that it stay as McMurray directing and DeMonaco writing. The two make for an excellent duo, DeMonaco with his well done commentary and McMurray with his sharp directing.

 

The effects for The First Purge are rather strange

 

Normally I wouldn’t mention effects for a Purge film, however this film warrants it. For the most part it’s standard practical stuff with costumes, sets and gore. However there is some odd use of CG. During the Purge people who participate have to wear camera contact lenses that change their eyes a different color. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand the different colored eyes give the Purgers a very unsettling look, especially in scenes when they’re watching from the shadows. It gives them a very inhuman and creepy look. On the other hand it’s very jarring as it’s clearly a CG effect at times and in a franchise known for having small budgets something a bit bigger feels off and out of place. There’s other moments of CG which look fine but there’s still that unshakable feeling that they don’t belong in this film.

 

Final Thoughts: The First Purge is another solid entry in the franchise. Despite having some weak characters and out of place effects it still has a painful but still much needed social and political commentary that serves both as a punch in the gut but also as an uplifting reminder of what w the people can do when faced with oppression. The acting is solid especially from Noel and Paul and the action is entertaining with great directing from McMurray. Overall even if you’re not a fan of the franchise I still highly recommend that this weekend you exercise your right to Purge. Whil grim it is still entertaining with a light at the end of it all.

 

Verdict: 4/5

 

About the Author

Good day to you, my name is Jonathan Gonzalez. For years I've loved movies and have been reviewing them for years, ever since I first saw Roger Ebert on Ebert and Roeper during my freshman year of high school for the first time. I am a graduate of Mercy College with a Bachelor's in Journalism and I have Asperger's Syndrome, something I am truly proud of.

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