THE FIRST PURGE review by Mark Walters – see the origins of the Nation’s most violent night

THE FIRST PURGE review by Mark Walters – see the origins of the Nation’s most violent night

James DeMonaco’s THE PURGE became a surprise hit in 2013, exploring the idea of a government-mandated night, once a year, where all crime was legal for 12 hours. The majority of the first movie takes place in a house, and plays more as a home invasion film, though it spawned two sequels that definitely took us out into the streets. Now we’re given a prequel movie that explores the very first Purge in a movie appropriately titled THE FIRST PURGE.

The story opens by showing us a crazy-looking (and acting) man nicknamed Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), who is tall and skinny with rough scars all over his face. He’s being interviewed by some dead-eyed man in a suit working for the New Founding Fathers (a new government group that is something other than Democrat or Republican, and one that is endorsed by the country’s current President) that is asking him if he’d participate in a night of all crime being legal, and Skeletor seems to love the idea, saying he wants to “purge” his anger and hostility… the interviewer says he likes that word. As the opening title fills the screen, we’re led into more interviews with other unhinged folks who seem ripe for this experiment, most from poverty neighborhoods, offered $5000 to stay in their city when the Purge starts, and promised more if they “participate” further during the time block. The one requirement is they must wear contact lenses that film their point of view, and must have a tracking device implanted under their skin. Unlike the other movies, this experimental night in not Nationwide, but contained on an island of neighborhoods used to test the concept to see if it works.

Many folks line up for this opportunity at easy money, but others like Nya (Lex Scott Davis) lead protests against it, saying to resist the money and folks behind this dangerous idea. Her younger brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) has sadly fallen in with the local drug dealing crowd, and becomes the target of of the aforementioned Skeletor, who can’t wait for Purge night. All of the drug peddlers are working for local crime lord Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), who despite his criminal ways and high dollar entourage still seems to have good intentions, and we discover was once a love interest for Nya. He hopes to protect her and her brother on Purge night, but Nya refuses his offer, thinking her brother will be safely out of town. Thanks to Skeletor’s taunting, Isaiah has decided to not only stay, but also sign up for the quick cash and Purge monitoring, hoping to use the night to take down his crazy aggressor.

On the other side of the Purge experiment are “The Architect” of the idea Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei) and New Founding Fathers Chief of Staff Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh), prepared to observe their first night of the concept. Updale is looking at this from a scientific standpoint, but Sabian is reporting to higher powers, and it’s quickly evident he wants the evening to progress is a very specific way. If you’ve seen the other movies, you know the New Founding Fathers don’t exactly have the best interests of the Purge night victims at heart. Nya and most of her neighborhood hole up in the local church, but as things get progressively more dangerous, it’s obvious there’s not going to be many areas left that are truly safe. Even Dmitri’s own people plan to use the night to take him down, forcing him to show he’s still in charge, but he also realizes he may be the only one left who can protect the neighborhood he grew up in.

James DeMonaco is back as screenwriter, but directing chores are handled by Gerard McMurray (BURNING SANDS), who creates some of the creepiest moments of any PURGE entry so far, and handles the action sequences quite well… but it takes a while to get there. The character set up and story development goes on a bit long this time around, dragging a bit as we wait for the inevitable Purge night commencement. These movies live or die on how they handle Purge night chaos moments, and for some reason this one feels like it’s walking toward it instead of running. There’s a lot of topical content too, from Nya leading protests of the government’s actions, to government manipulation of the people, to even gun violence in the streets. Five years ago this concept seemed like a scary potential reality. But now? It’s a scary reminder of the times we’re practically living in day to day. One thing that elevates this entry to new horror-filled levels is the contact lenses worn by Purge participants, as they glow in different colors, and give those wearing them almost demon-like eyes… it’s very unsettling, especially when they’re in the shadows and their eyes are the only things you see within the silhouette of their body. Whoever thought of that concept should be rewarded, it’s quite unnerving.

There’s also some interesting story moments here as unlike the other Purge entries, this is a night that’s happening for the first time in this way, so there’s no expectations this time around, meaning things play out differently making this entry a little refreshing. But as the carnage ramps up, the intensity of the final act gets pretty epic. The big stars of this entry are Lex Scott Davis and Y’lan Noel, both doing a great job of showing their fear of what is unfolding, and their bravery in dealing with it. But it’s Noel that becomes a force to be reckoned with when all hell breaks loose, portraying a sort of anti-hero who must do what’s right to protect those who can’t help themselves. And he’s not just a smooth-talking strong presence, the guy can handle fight scenes and action cues like a seasoned pro. I wasn’t familiar with Noel’s work before this (he’s on Issa Rae’s show INSECURE), but I’m a fan now, he’s got a good look and gravitas to carry this film, and turns into one of the best characters the franchise has seen yet. Rotimi Paul is also quite effective as the unhinged Skeletor, who looks like he broke out of some maximum security prison, and is quite scary with his portrayal. The biggest let down in the cast is sadly Marisa Tomei, not for her performance but just the little amount she’s utilized. I get the sense there was a bigger story or at least more scenes with her character that perhaps got cut for time, but it seems unfortunate to have her here and not properly give her a solid story arc. Based on stills I’ve seen from the film that I know didn’t make the final cut, there was definitely more story here at some point.

THE FIRST PURGE comes very close to being one of the best entries in the franchise, and does feel like one of the more cohesive scripts so far, suffering only from a slow build up in the first half. Overall, it’s still an entertaining if not somewhat eerily familiar observation on violence and humanity, wrapped up in what you could categorize as social commentary horror. If you like these films, you’ll probably enjoy this one as well, though I’m not sure where else they can go from here. There’s a 10-part USA series coming which is teased in the closing credits, so I guess we’ll find out if there’s still stories to tell. All I know is between the last entry THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR and this one, it’s starting to really hit a little too close to home with real life society at this point. Maybe one day these films will be shown in schools and called “ahead of their time”, unless we can all work a little harder to make sure that doesn’t happen. In the meantime, someone tell Hollywood that Y’lan Noel needs a series of action movies lined up, like right now… you’ll see what I mean.

THE FIRST PURGE opens July 4, 2018

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.