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Thursday, July 12, 2018

The First Purge Movie Review

Criminal Celebrant

Mixing low-brow thrills with high-brow commentary, exploitation flicks have a longstanding history of addressing timely social issues underneath their B-movie schlock. After all, who doesn't want a little political discourse to go along with good-old-fashioned blood and bullets? Serving as a prequel to the previous three instalments in the "Purge" franchise, "The First Purge" attempts to follow in this time-honored tradition, blending potent yet disappointingly underdeveloped themes tied to race and class with utterly ridiculous low-budget ultra-violence. But while a lack of depth does hamper the experience, the movie ultimately manages to provide a decent helping of grindhouse mayhem, if you can stomach the inherent ugliness of all the carnage.

Now run by an alternative political party dubbed the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA), the US government decides to try out their new "Purge" concept with an isolated, experimental run on Staten Island. For one night, all crime is legalized in the borough, allowing citizens to release their pent up aggression. But while the organizers claim the event is being held in order to help reduce violence throughout the rest of the year, the NFFA's true motivations prove to be a bit more nefarious. Trapped in a hostile warzone full of psychopaths and mercenaries, the local community is forced to fight for their survival.

And fight for their survival they do...eventually. The first act is a little slow-going, introducing us to the core cast of characters, including the town's top gangster Dmitri (Y'lan Noel), a Purge protester named Nya (Lex Scott Davis), and her younger brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade). Sadly, despite this time spent on setup, the protagonists all prove to be very thinly defined and often have a tendency to speechify and comically spell-out the movie's already blatant social commentary.

Likewise, the antagonists are laughably underdeveloped, with a cardboard cutout political lackey played by Patch Darragh and an over-the-top junkie murderer called Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) joining the expected cavalry of nameless, frequently faceless killers dressed like Nazis and reject supervillains. Also, Marisa Tomei ("Spider-Man Homecoming") is thrown in here for some inexplicable reason in a completely useless role that at first seems like it might be important but ultimately goes on to serve no purpose whatsoever.

Thankfully, once the Purge itself kicks into high-gear, director Gerard McMurray does offer some decent thrills and appropriately nightmarish imagery, effectively mixing action and horror. Participants in the Purge all wear glowing contact lenses to record their activity, and this visual touch ends up giving all the killers a fittingly demonic glint in their eyes. One brutal takedown masked in a heavy cloud of smoke and slow-motion camera work is especially memorable, and a third act fight scene set in a narrow stairway packs a potent visceral punch. With that said, while the flick's gritty aesthetic suits the content well, the franchise's low budget is much more apparent this time around, often giving the movie a cheap late 90s direct-to-video feel.

The acting itself is also a bit suspect, but Y'lan Noel ends up turning in a surprisingly rousing performance as his gang leader character slowly morphs into a genuine action hero. It's not exactly the most complex arc, but by the time Dmitri goes into full "Die Hard" mode, it's hard not to cheer. Likewise, it's at this point the movie seems to fully embrace its grindhouse tone. I just wish the accompanying social commentary was blended in with a bit more finesse.

Though I applaud the filmmakers for tweaking the original "Purge" premise to have more relevancy to current hot-button issues dealing with class and racial discrimination, the writing doesn't ever have the depth or nuance necessary to find any kind of thoughtful statement within all the carnage. Any attempts at allegory are thrown out the window. The movie literally features killers dressed like Klansmen shooting up an African American neighborhood. There is no subtext here. And while this more overt approach could have potentially been very powerful in its own right, the results are disappointingly simplistic.

Despite its potentially weighty themes, "The First Purge" is an exceedingly dumb movie...and yet, the film is actually at its most entertaining when it just embraces this fact and goes into full grindhouse mode. The low-budget yet stylized action scenes should please existing fans of the franchise, but the film's obvious social commentary fails to offer the kind of impact that the best exploitation flicks are capable of.

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