The nation is completely divided. Protests are everywhere, and accusations of shady political lobbying are in the air. No, we’re not describing a spot on your 24-hour news network of choice. But it’s specifically this kind of ripped-from-the-headlines aesthetic that The First Purge is clearly going for. After all, its marketing (see the above image) is far from subtle. Sadly, the film — which, despite its title, is the fourth entry in the franchise — only offers the appearance of relevance in place of any real social or political commentary.
A prequel to the previous films, The First Purge chronicles the United States’ first foray into an annual night of lawlessness, wherein all crime (including murder) is legal for 12 hours. This “societal catharsis,” its creators call it, is all set to take place on Staten Island, NY, and the New Founding Fathers of America — a new third political party that has recently assumed power — has a lot riding on its success. Naturally, violence ensues, and we find ourselves following a group of local residents grappling with the decision to participate in the NFFA’s social experiment or simply try to live out the night.
Of course, The Purge franchise has always worn its politics on its sleeve (perhaps never as blatantly as in 2016’s The Purge: Election Year). But the prospect of a full-on origin story for the Purge should have taken that impulse to a whole new extreme. The fact that the film’s cast is populated almost exclusively with people of color — aside from the villains, natch — opens up the possibility that The First Purge might weave something meaningful out of the racist imagery it invokes and even the uber-violence it so willingly espouses. No such luck, we’re afraid. The all-too-real resonance of the film’s subtext is perhaps never fully realized in part because it sits right there on the surface.
And The First Purge just lets it sit there for all to see, never bothering to dig any deeper into it. Instead, we get a collection of cliches posing as characters. Oh, and a particularly obnoxious “villain” in Rotimi Paul’s Skeletor (sadly, not the Masters of the Universe character). At least Y’lan Noel (Insecure) gets to be a bit of an action hero. Especially in a film with such uneven performances, Noel shines as the local drug kingpin who winds up defending his neighborhood. Likewise, Lex Scott Davis (SuperFly) does a capable job as his ex, an anti-Purge activist who ends up trapped on the island with her younger brother (Joivan Wade). However, the biggest travesty is how the film wastes Oscar winner Marisa Tomei in a nothing role that feels like little more than busywork until she can return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
With its last two installments (especially The Purge: Anarchy), the series seemed to be finding its footing as a pitch-black action-horror thrill ride. Frank Grillo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) proved to be the perfect leading man for the franchise, elevating it to a cult status that felt about right for this kind of sensationalized storytelling. So going the prequel route might have never been a wise move to begin with, especially since The First Purge breezes past all the most promising elements that a prequel could have brought. In lieu of that, director Gerard McMurry delivers just another Purge movie. Notably, The First Purge is the first entry not directed by series creator James DeMonaco, though he does retain sole screenwriting credit.
Somehow, The First Purge is simultaneously too much and not enough. So much of the film’s focus is on relishing the paranoia and sporadic violence of it all, but without characters we can care about or some compelling message underlining it, the film just feels exploitative. Alternatively, if The First Purge had leaned into the grimy B-movie appeal, it might have at least offered some genuine thrills or worked on a can’t-believe-I-just-saw-that level. Instead, The First Purge feels like a crime against itself, a project that betrays its own immense potential. The opportunity to explore the fever pitch that led the nation to such a drastic measure as implementing the Purge should have uncovered at least a modicum of profundity.
Franchise loyalists may still get the bare minimum amount of enjoyment out of this installment, but don’t expect a lick of substance or originality here. The First Purge does actually have something positive to say about human nature in the end (kinda?), but its ultimate takeaway boils down to the fact that politicians aren’t to be trusted. Seriously. With a concept as rich as this franchise has in a time as polarizing as this one, that’s the greatest insight The First Purge can muster. If audiences haven’t learned by now that modern politics is indeed the real horror show, they probably never will.