After three films about that single night every year when crime is legalised, we at last get to know how it all began. The Purge (2013) was a variation on the home invasion theme, while The Purge: Anarchy (2014) and The Purge: Election Year (2016, a real election year, of course) were set back on the streets. Now, in The First Purge, it’s time for the origins story we’ve always wanted. Didn’t we?
For those untouched by Blumhouse’s series, the essential idea is 12 hours of mayhem, when any crime can not just be committed but also go unpunished. Literally any crime, no matter how brutal or senseless. The people get carte blanche to do anything they want, no matter who suffers. But why do it in the first place? The First Purge shows an America suffering from financial crisis and political turbulence, one that has elected a new, right-wing president from an equally new party. And what comes to be known as the Purge is an experiment, allowing people to vent their anger and, in theory, drive down the crime rate, an idea perpetrated by criminally naïve scientist Dr Updale (Marisa Tomei, suffering from badly died hair and the lion’s share of the worst dialogue the film has to offer).
Which takes us to the series’ political thread. It’s never subtle or sophisticated and in this episode, the target is more obvious than ever. The new president promises, but not quite in the same words, to “make America great again” and there are other references peppered throughout the action that heavy-handedly point in the direction of the current POTUS. The experiment itself is confined to Staten Island and is funded by one of the president’s biggest supporters, the NRA. Taking part is optional – or not, because everybody in the designated area struggles to get by and that $5,000 incentive to stay on the island while all hell lets loose is more than a little tempting. Everything is monitored to see how people respond and participate in the Purge and it’s just part and parcel of this release of anger and hatred.
The reality is that the experiment is more of an opportunity to settle some old scores, but this disguises something profoundly more sinister and corrupt. Ultimately, the heroes of the hour turn out to be the local drugs lord and his gang, who at least have a sense of community and do something to protect what’s left of it. Summarised, it all adds up to black people good, white people bad. And the film really is that simplistic in its approach. It also fancies itself in the Die Hard mould in its later sequences, when gang leader Dimitri (Y’Lan Noel) single-handedly takes on heavily armed, masked hoards to save the occupants of an apartment block. Yes, he really does sport a white vest ……
Inevitably, after the comparatively peaceful opening, the violence takes off like a rocket – blood all over the place, more bullets than you could ever imagine – although the film does just about know where to draw the line when it comes to being explicit. We’re shielded from some of the more graphic scenes by darkness or mist, but we know all too well what’s going on. Generally, there are some interesting touches: the crowd sequences are well orchestrated and the continual switches from the murderous streets of Staten Island to the control room, populated by white people in business dress, make a sharp contrast. But it’s all let down by the clumsy use of so-called TV footage – an all too familiar technique – an uneven tone and the sense that you’re being hit over the head with a mallet.
This is a franchise with a potentially potent mix – B-movie style, in-your-face satire and political comment and an over the top portrayal of a divided society. The First Purge is no different. But this isn’t the first in the franchise, it’s the fourth – and it’s showing its age.