Why going the prequel route was a wrong turn for ‘THE FIRST PURGE’

Isaiah (JOIVAN WADE), Nya (LEX SCOTT DAVIS), Selina (KRISTEN SOLIS), and Luisa (LUNA LAUREN VALEZ) in THE FIRST PURGE. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Prequels have a tough time proving why they’re necessary. For every good one (like OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL or X-MEN: FIRST CLASS), there’s a multitude of terrible ones (like the STAR WARS prequels). Mostly, they give audiences superfluous information about a cinematic universe they’ve already bought into. They don’t act as a solid base for the previously released chapters, nor do they snare new fans. The PURGE franchise has always been a bacchanal of lukewarm mediocrity, and its prequel, THE FIRST PURGE, is no different. This is a glorification of ugliness and stereotypes, funneled into a dumbed-down exploitation picture.

Though they don’t give an exact year when our story takes place, the time period is easily discernable thanks to a prominent HALLOWEEN reboot teaser poster and the wall-to-wall trap music playing. Society is on the brink of collapse and America is so desperate for change, they’ve elected a third party candidate into office (pardon me while I laugh that one out) – one whose motives are steeped in corruption. The National Founding Fathers of America (or the “NFFA”) President Bracken (Ian Blackman), along with prominent psychologist Dr. May Updale  (Marisa Tomei, whose psychologist character is in need of a psychologist to get to the root of why her hair roots are so bad) and Chief of Staff Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh), have devised an experiment to relieve society of its ills: “The Purge.” For 12 hours one night of the year, residents are allowed to engage in any illegal activity without penalty. Ground zero for this great social experiment is Staten Island, where many residents are people of color with low income. But when they rebel, throwing house parties and church services rather than bullets and blows, government meddling ensues.

James DeMonaco’s script and Gerard McMurray’s direction leave this film’s identity teetering somewhere between a too-serious, character-driven, social justice thriller and an action-driven exploitation flick. Neither unfocused slant works.  It turns into a generic urban warfare film at one point, before the influences of DIE HARD and THE RAID kick into gear in the third act. However, true to the series, there are kernels of clever ideas – and similar to the others, it astoundingly fails in its execution of those ideas. Give or take a stuffed animal minefield, or a few disembodied baby-doll heads, there’s nothing strikingly cinematic about this chapter. The filmmakers attempt a bigger statement with iconography – like the minstrel-masked henchmen of the S&M S.S. mercenary – but the layers of this commentary are embarrassingly ham-handed. Plus, relying on cheap jump scares, which are the worst in the series, adds further insult to injury.

Nya (LEX SCOTT DAVIS) and Isaiah (JOIVAN WADE) in THE FIRST PURGE. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Perhaps the biggest thing THE FIRST PURGE never surmounts is that their audience comes armed with prior knowledge. After three films, franchise fans have a firm grasp of the rules of this universe. Any stab at tension is a futile gesture on the filmmakers’ part. The air has automatically been let out of the balloon before this cinematic prelude begins. It’s never been a secret that the reason “The Purge” began was so that the government could kill off poor, marginalized communities, yet one of the architects of this murderous scheme is oblivious to this fact. Because the other three PURGE films exist and are set in the future, we also already know that the political leaders get away with their agenda. We also don’t care about how the night got its name (those who hated how Han Solo got his will assuredly bristle at the similar tactics here). The filmmakers also clumsily delve into lingering questions – like why participants wear masks if they won’t be prosecuted (“Because it’s scarier” wasn’t a good enough assumed answer), and why other criminal activity besides murder don’t typically occur (because the answer to that one wasn’t obvious enough).

The reason the aforementioned good prequels – and others like ANNABELLE: CREATION – work so ingeniously is that those filmmakers offer innovation alongside the pre-determined ingredients. They know how to work within the parameters of the established mythology, adding a unique spin on the story. Here, these filmmakers instead choose to follow franchise formula – where barely one-dimensional characters are introduced, forced out onto the treacherous streets, only to be confronted by blood-lusting murderers. They simply don’t have any fun with the concept.

Despite the actors giving it their all (the performers are the lone highlight), the characters don’t exactly leap off the screen. Protester Nya (Lex Scott Davis) is a well-respected community organizer, but makes dumb decisions left and right on Purge night (the least of which is not signing up to get five grand for sticking around to help her friends stay safe). Her little brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) is looking for a get rich quick scheme to help the family, but his participation on Purge night is muddled. He wants to kill local psychopath junkie Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) until he conveniently doesn’t. A head-scratching dichotomy arises with drug-dealer Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), as he’s failed to help the community before (attracting crime and junkies to the projects), but seeks redemption on Purge night by protecting the community for flimsy reasons. The best character, Dolores (Mugga), acts as the comedic relief but has very little narrative impact.

McMurray’s feature misses the mark by miles. It doesn’t broaden or deepen our understanding of the well-established, easily-explained universe, nor does it stoke interest for those who were previously uninitiated.

THE FIRST PURGE opens on July 4.

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