Film Review: ‘The First Purge’ Needs To Be The Last

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Someone make it stop. Jason Blum, have you no pity? Sure, “The Purge” franchise has some amazing marketing materials. Especially with the emergence of Donald Trump and his base, this series has leaned into that. The similarities of Make America Great Again and the intentions of the New Founding Fathers of America are obvious. Still, you need to make a worthwhile movie out of that. Here, with “The First Purge,” going back to the beginning serves no purpose. A cash grab from a product that’s mined the territory as far as it can go, this is pointless cinema. Among 2018 releases, few have been worse, though even fewer are less surprising than this one.

“The First Purge” isn’t the worst sequel in the franchise (that belongs to “The Purge: Anarchy,” as you can see here), but it’s another misguided installment. Much like how “The Purge: Election Year” (panned here) was heavily political, so is this one. The anger is palpable. You need to give a reason for the anger, and that’s not present here. With a mixed message that condemns some violence but glorifies it at specific turns, this concept again fails. Without the larger commentary, sequences involving white supremacists shooting up a black church, for example, lose the intended social meaning. Instead, it’s just a would-be shocking moment in a schlocky horror title. Worse still, it ends up exploitative.

Obviously a prequel, here we learn how things all got started. With modern day issues exaggerated, a third political party emerges: the New Founding Fathers of America. Assuming power, an experiment created by Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei) is commissioned. The NFFA will make all crime legal for 12 hours, selecting Staten Island as the location. To entice members of the poor communities in the borough to not head out of town, they’re paid to stay, with bonuses for “purging” themselves. Though Updale only sees it as a sociological test, one free from political agenda, the NFFA don’t share that assessment. They have far more nefarious thoughts in mind.

As the experiment gets underway, we meet a group of characters that we’ll follow throughout the night. There’s Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade), who are struggling to make ends meet. There’s drug dealer/kingpin Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), who is a caretaker for his section of Staten Island. In essence, they’re the heroes. On the flip side, there’s junkie and psycho Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), who plans on going wild. Problem is, he’s initially one of the few. With NFFA honcho Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh) worried that the experiment will be a failure, reinforcements are called in. Mercenaries of every ilk flood the borough, slaughtering the poorest of the poor.

With the island now a war zone, our surviving characters must try and stay alive until the purging comes to a close. As that becomes a tougher and tougher proposition, it becomes clear to them what we already know. This experiment will continue. NFFA President Bracken (Ian Blackman) will declare it a success and institute it nationwide. Now, it has become clear to audience members that it was built on a lie. Obviously, that doesn’t seem like enough to build a film on. Still, here we are.

One has to wonder what Marisa Tomei was thinking. The most recognizable face in the cast, she’s given a thankless role that she phones in. Tomei deserved better. If she needed a paycheck, she has “Spider-Man: Far From Home” on the docket. Y’lan Noel and Rotimi Paul provide the best turns, but neither are given three-dimensional characters. The former is a dealer with a heart of gold and the ability to become an action hero at a moment’s notice. The latter? Well, he’s just chaos. Lex Scott Davis is given even less to do, while Joivan Wade leaves almost no impression.

Supporting players here include the aforementioned Ian Blackman and Patch Darragh, along with Mugga, Melonie Diaz (blink and you’ll miss her) Mo McRae, Kristen Solis, and Luna Lauren Velez, among others. All told, you don’t come to a Purge sequel for the acting, that goes without saying. This cast is lower on star power than usual, though the end result isn’t much different.

Original franchise godfather James DeMonaco only writes this time around, leaving directing duties to Gerard McMurray. The script remains terrible, a DeMonaco hallmark, while McMurray’s direction attempts to put lipstick on a pig. “The First Purge” never seems to fully understand why it’s angry, so it just throws everything at the wall. Plus, its desire to also be a crowd-pleasing action flick at times only muddles things more. As usual, it’s a mess with very little that actually works.

This movie was never going to be subtle. There’s literally a moment where a man grabs a woman by the…you know. “The First Purge” has individual moments that suggest something of value, but it’s lost amid detritus and bad decisions. One can only hope that Blum, DeMonaco, and company have reached the end of the cinematic road for this franchise. A television event is on tap next, but hopefully, theatrical releases have concluded. The premise has more than been exhausted.

“THE FIRST PURGE” IS DISTRIBUTED BY UNIVERSAL PICTURES AND OPENS IN THEATERS ON JULY 4.

GRADE: (★½)