Directed by: Gerard McMurray
Starring: Lex Scott Davies, Y’lan Noel, Joivan Wade, Mugga, Marisa Tomei
The ‘Purge’ franchise is one that has attracted somewhat of a cult following since the first instalment was released in 2013, with the horror films (‘horror’ being used loosely here) being renowned as guilty pleasures for many filmgoers. Although the franchise started out with a sub-par home invasion horror flick, the subsequent installments veered to more action-driven narratives, with ‘The Purge: Anarchy’ and ‘The Purge: Election Year’ trading in the cheap jump-scares for slow-motion shoot-outs. Whilst the hybridity of horror and action tropes can work if executed effectively (note ‘Aliens’ and ‘Zombieland’), the ‘Purge’ films have been nothing short of lacklustre thus far. Sadly, the fourth entry to the franchise follows in a similar fashion.
Set before the events of the first film, ‘The First Purge’ tells the story of the New Founding Fathers of America’s rise to power in the United States; a political party founded to rival the Democrats and Republicans in order to restore stability following an insurgency of unemployment in America. Their solution is simple: to conduct a sociological test that allows all crimes, including murder, to be legal for 12 hours. But when the test-zone community of Staten Island resist, the government takes matters into their own hands…
Admittedly, the premise of all crimes being legal for 12 hours is exciting. The notion of expelling repressed rage with no legal repercussions is one that we’ve all internally pondered at some point of our lives (some more than others), but for The ‘Purge’ franchise this premise has always been more satisfying than the final result.
The clear indication of The ‘Purge’ franchise acting as a social commentary for gun control anxiety and class discrimination in America is perhaps its only redeeming quality and it is all the more so inspiring when we get to experience such issues through the eyes of the minority. ‘The First Purge’ is refreshing with its culturally diverse cast who all bring a sense of pride to their roles, traits that are competently handled by a socially driven director in Gerard McMurray; whom notably has a producing credit on Ryan Coogler’s ‘Fruitvale Station’. The cast, for the most part, keep the film from sinking. Y’lan Noel is exhilarating as Dimitri; a notorious drug-dealer whose physical prowess makes John Wick look like Michael Scott attempting parkour, and Mugga brings a surprising dosage of effective humour as the foul-mouthed Dolores. Yet there are a handful of characters that feel lazily written, particularly Rotimi Paul’s Skeletor, who acts as a damaging embodiment of ‘crazed’ mental illness. Such laziness by writer James DeMonaco has burdened the entire franchise, with his over-reliance on telling rather than showing resulting in heavy expositional dialogue that pays the cast no favours, whilst simultaneously offering no sense of confidence in the audience’s capability in following along to the events that unfold.
Yet most frustratingly ‘The First Purge’ struggles to find a complementary balance between the horror and action set-pieces. The horror feels cheap with its abundance of lazy jump-scares, and the action, whilst entertaining, seems misjudged; culminating in a denouement that propels any sense of plausibility out of the window. Yes, there is an element of self-awareness to the film, and indeed the entire franchise, but where do we draw the line between mere popcorn entertainment and lacklustre filmmaking?
‘The First Purge’ is undoubtedly the most satisfying instalment in an otherwise forgettable franchise – but that doesn’t mean much, does it?