04th Jul2018

‘The First Purge’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Y’lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Marisa Tomei, Patch Darragh, Luna Lauren Velez, Kristen Solis, Rotimi Paul | Written by James DeMonaco | Directed by Gerard McMurray

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As the title indicates, the fourth movie in the Purge franchise is a prequel that depicts the events of the first ever Purge, an annual night of supposed societal catharsis where all crime is legal for 12 hours, including murder. The series showed its willingness to embrace political satire with its previous instalment (2016′s The Purge: Election Year), so you could be forgiven for expecting some hard-hitting social commentary this time round, especially given the current incumbent of the White House. However, while the film makes a number of nods in that direction, it falls short of deeper exploration, which feels like a missed opportunity.

Set in the not too distant future, the film begins with a new party, the New Founding Fathers of America, having been elected to power after a period of social unrest (illustrated by clips from real-life protests). Seizing on an idea by social psychologist Dr Updale (a rather wasted Marisa Tomei), the NFFA announce a pilot study for The Purge that will take place on Staten Island, with the impoverished (and largely black or Hispanic) citizens offered $5,000 incentives to stay put for the whole thing, with bonuses available to those who are active participants.

As the night of legalised chaos begins, three connected characters move to centre stage: cocaine kingpin Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), whose cohorts are plotting to oust him during The Purge and take control of his business; his ex-girlfriend Nya (Lex Scott Davis), an anti-Purge activist, who plans to spend the evening protecting citizens in a local church; and her younger brother Isaiah (former EastEnder Joivan Wade), who secretly intends to use the Purge as a way to rid himself of psychotic local bully Skeletor (Rotimi Paul). However, when the government sneakily tip the scales to incentivise wider violence, all three are forced to work together to defend themselves.

This time round, series writer-director James DeMonaco is absent from the director’s chair, though he still wrote the script. Taking his place is director Gerard McMurray, who clearly has more of an affinity for the action sequences, as all the behind-the-scenes moments (mostly involving Updale et al observing the action transmitted via contact lens cameras) feel disappointingly flat, even becoming downright laughable once Tomei has her “What have I done?” moment.

Given the film’s prequel status, it’s disappointing that there’s so little detail on the New Founding Fathers themselves, especially when they’re the supposed conspirators of the piece. Similarly, though the film is happy to invoke images of police brutality and position itself with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, it stops short of digging any deeper than that – for example, no-one even mentions the term “social cleansing”, which is clearly what’s going on here.

On top of that, the first half of the film struggles with patchy editing and some poorly defined supporting characters, most notably Kristen Solis’ innocent young neighbour kid, who barely gets a single line.

That said, the film deserves points for its multi-racial cast. Noel, in particular is extremely charismatic as the world’s nicest drug kingpin and has some kick-ass fight moves to boot, suggesting that he could become a break-out star. There’s also strong support from Davis, while tribal tattooed Paul gives good cackling psychopath as Skeletor.

In addition, The First Purge ultimately redeems itself with a strong final act that’s reminiscent of 2011′s Attack the Block. As well as delivering muscular action sequences (a stairwell fight is a particular highlight) and decent gore work, McMurray has a flair for a stylistic flourish, most notably in a striking attack scene, where various assailants come looming out of clouds of smoke.

In short, this is an entertaining entry that stands comfortably alongside the other films in the franchise, but it’s hard not to feel disappointed that the script didn’t go a little harder on the social commentary. That is unless it’s subtly making the point that nothing’s actually scarier than real life in 2018, in which case, job done.

*** 3/5

The First Purge is in UK cinemas now.

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