The First Purge, a horror flick, has some bright moments including Gerard McMurray, but overall is just another disappointing part of the series.
The Purge series is baffling.
After the first entry stumbled into theaters in 2013, it lucked into a heavy political climate with which it tied in its premise — all crime in America is legal for a 12-hour period once a year.
It’s an intriguing idea that almost demands eyeballs watching, and the three entries following (including The First Purge, out this week) have tried to tie contemporary themes into their marketing. 2014’s Anarchy involved a scheme to overthrow the government overseeing the Purge, and Election Year’s title is self-explanatory enough.
The First Purge throws it all back to how the legal crime spree began, as a social experiment conducted by a shady government to see if it would lower the year-round crime rate of an America that’s reached its boiling point. With Gerard McMurray (Fruitvale Station) behind the camera, it looks smooth, exciting and frightening.
But James DeMonaco just can’t get it right. The creator of the series, he wrote every script and directed all but this one. Even in McMurray’s more assured hands, he can’t overcome the weak caricatures of characters that DeMonaco handed him, or the mind-numbing story decisions that are supposed to pass as plot twists.
Let’s start with the good. McMurray is a welcome addition to the series. He brings a satisfying fusion of the original film’s horror roots and mixes it with the pounding action of the later installments.
The movie looks great — it looks like a haunted house our terrified heroes are trying to navigate their way through, the visuals foggy and flashy. A new added value element is the neon colored contacts participants of the Purge are asked to wear to record their actions. Piercing blue, green and purple eyes glow in the dark, and it’s just a flat out cool visual.
McMurray’s action beats are tightly coiled, unwinding unpredictably. Avoiding spoilers, the film’s shoot-out climax is almost entirely worth the ticket price, and is a noticeable spike in quality from almost anything else in the series.
But the final product we have is a good premise and a promising director tied up in a bad movie. It tries to be politically relevant by presenting arguments but supplying no evidence.
Details are scarce, but the opening scene reveals a fictional political party (here depicted to be as shady as a Saturday morning cartoon villain) announcing it will be conducting an experimental Purge through all of Staten Island.
We get canned news footage of protesters, incoherent statistics supporting the experiment, and obvious allegories for political unrest today.
We meet characters who will inevitably get swept into the center of the Purge, like a drug lord (Y’lan Noel), a protester (Lex Scott Davis) and the protester’s brother who takes government incentivized money to participate in the Purge (Joivan Wade).
The characters fall into the traps everyone in the Purge universe seems to succumb to — they can’t resist abandoning perfectly safe hiding spots for danger and can’t hear potential killers creeping up inches behind them, for example. We need to have some danger to make the movie work, of course — but can it ever derive from something other than stupidity? ••