There’s a moment in The First Purge where Isiah (Joivan Wade), a young African American teetering on the brink of breaking bad, wanders down an alleyway. His eyes are illuminated a ghastly blue, irises cloaked in live-stream contact lens there to capture the experimental first night of legalized murder. Any newsworthy POV footage documented for mass distribution is met with “financial compensation”, as is remaining in the kill zone. As Isiah hunts a leaky junkie by the name of Skeletor (a crazed and wildly watchable Rotimi Paul), a multitude of different colored lens peer at him, stalking his moves.
It’s an eerie sentiment and also makes for a visually arresting tableau. The idea that behind any pair of these glowing eyes is a man, woman or even child fully intending to murder their neighbors for a little cheddar. It’s by no mistake that director Gerard McMurray and scriptwriter James DeMonaco set the action in the socioeconomic gridlock of Staten Island, most specifically at a high rise project. There’s a strong contingent of BLM pulse running through this film.
And there’s something extremely disturbing about the underlying political notions of The First Purge. The economy is tanked, crime is at an all-time, unemployment and drugs are tearing communities apart. With a new political party in power, built on authoritarian ideals that hew dangerously close to some of 45’s derelict social policies, State Island has become the sight of the first purge by extent of its colorful populace and crime-worn environs. If we can no longer sustain this level of violence and disorder, let’s just legally compel the black and brown people to kill each other, the party reasons behind closed doors.
The First Purge is a dumb movie in many ways but smuggles in some surprisingly astute commentary about the wriggling divide between Americans, the franchise kind of lucking into the dumpster fire of a political landscape that we’re in now. The cast is predominantly African-American and for being relatively inexperienced, do a fine job of juggling the horror movie sentiments and the more silly action hero beats.
Our attention is squared mostly on the aforementioned Isaiah and his big sister Nya (Lex Scott Davis), a pacifist and protester sticking it out in PurgeLand to make some much-needed money for her family. The other big player is Y’lan Noel’s Dmitri, a young kingpin who perpetuates the cycles of violence, even while being opposed to the looming experiment.
McMurray does a fine job of assembling a large cast of characters and paying the right amount of attention to those that matter most. There are definitely one too many in the ensemble that we’re supposed to care about who are never afforded anything beyond cursory development but The First Purge smartly doesn’t treat them like mere cannon fodder nonetheless. This is a movie that, despite its schlocky trappings, actually cares for human life.
As an exploitation B-movie with some creepy imagery, brutal kills, and a bit of an activist edge, The First Purge succeeds in spite of itself. Yes, the dialogue can be laughably bad at times, a critical government conspiratorial plot is undercooked, most of the Caucasian actors are awful (except maybe Marisa Tomei, who is unexplainably there for a few minutes), the CGI is overused and SyFy level bad and it works much better as an horror-thriller than it does as an outright action movie (which it pretty much transitions to in its last act) but the thing hums along admirably nonetheless, entertaining and provoking in equal measure. As far as I’m concerned, this is the best the purge might ever get.
CONCLUSION: Sassy, brutal and imbued with some relevant political bite, ‘The First Purge’ has a number of problems – it’s also over-the-top, cheap-looking and tonally inconsistent – but a strong story, likable characters and some rather tense moments make this a step forward for a franchise often tripping over its own feet.