Review: The First Purge

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PLOT: In an attempt to find a cure to the many problems of modern society, the US government turns Staten Island into a testing ground for a controversial experiment. Those willing to stay are given an extra financial incentive to join in on The Purge and commit any crime imaginable with no consequence, for a 24 hour period.

REVIEW: Since we were first introduced to the world of THE PURGE, the series has seemingly adapted to the times. What started off as a home invasion thriller careened into more of a crude social statement. And yes, THE FIRST PURGE has a very clear viewpoint. However, we are here to simply focus on whether the film is a successful sequel as opposed to write about the political slant – but I’m pretty sure you’re aware of where it falls for you. After building what is almost a day-glow modern day wasteland of crime and gruesome horror, we now witness how it all began. And who knew that Peter Parker’s Aunt May was somehow involved in the anarchy? Yes, Marisa Tomei is in this one.

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THE FIRST PURGE is only an experiment. The people are told that it is a psychological examination allowing citizens to vent their deepest and darkest desires to commit any crime without punishment – those that participate will receive financial incentive. This time, the controversial idea is put into place on Staten Island where they will cut off all transportation for the 24 hour period. It affects a young activist named Nya (Lex Scott Davis), her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) and her crime boss ex-boyfriend Dimitri (Y’lan Noel). While it simply begins as a test, insidious government forces soon take matters to the extreme by introducing a deadly element to the mix.

My reaction to THE FIRST PURGE is a complicated one. As this story played out, it was a bit more suspenseful than I had anticipated. While sitting there with popcorn and a soda, I found myself entertained by its deadly sense of gruesome fun. Yet letting time pass and thinking back, there are a few things that certainly negate my positive take. The film’s awkward shift as to who we really should be terrified off doesn’t completely work. And when we finally meet the true monsters of this piece, it is more than a bit heavy-handed. Still, if you’ve enjoyed THE PURGE series up until now, most of this is going to be obvious and perhaps won’t hinder your one own reaction.

As Nya, Lex Scott Davis offers up a solid lead. And while Y’lan Noel also does a fine job as her crime boss ex, his transition to a modern day John McClane is a bit ridiculous. In fact, once the action hits the housing projects where Nya and her brother live, you begin to question whether or not it was simply a DIE HARD remake – it’s yet another strange choice the film makes. And then there is Skeletor. This is one performance in the film that deserves special mention. In fact, if memory serves me well, the first face we see is that of this demented psycho played by Rotimi Paul. Get ready for one of the weirdest antagonist you’ll see in theatres this year. And frankly, Paul plays him full tilt crazy and I don’t know if I was terrified of him, or thought he was the funniest thing in the film.

The prequel is directed by Gerard McMurray (FRUITVALE STATION) and written by series creator James DeMeMonaco. McMurray manages to illicit a sense of fear and tension as the horror builds. And since the fourth film in the series is a bit more grounded than the previous installments, the horrific on-screen images are occasionally more effective. One sequence featuring Isaiah looking to exact a bit of stupidly juvenile revenge is especially tense. It’s just a shame nearly every single character makes some of the worst decisions you could possibly make.

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Earlier, I mentioned the inclusion of Marisa Tomei to the cast. If you look back at the franchise, they’ve featured a number of solid actors including Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey and Franck Grillo. So I was excited to see the Oscar winning actress in a horror flick such as this. And while she is certainly good in the film, the role itself is a bit of a waste. And her ultimate fate is even more frustrating. Perhaps she owed someone a favor, but this is not at all the show-stopping role that you’d expect an acclaimed actor to step into.

THE FIRST PURGE was an enjoyable yet slightly conflicted movie going experience for this viewer. While there, this dark and frighteningly grim tale offered suspense and a vicious sense of fun. Yet as you step away, the characters consistently bad choices, and Dimitri’s questionable transition to hero weren’t terribly believable. And for those of you who haven’t been appreciative of the direction the series has taken – especially after the previous film – you probably won’t be on board for this one either. If you are willing to forgive its flaws, you are likely to enjoy this latest chapter in THE PURGE.