The concept of the Purge makes no logical sense. Consequently, the more that the Purge movies try to delve into the inner workings of the future America where all crime is legal for one night a year, the less believable the movies become. The Purge itself was essentially just a background justification for the main action in the original 2013 movie, but as the series has progressed, creator James DeMonaco has placed more emphasis on social commentary, straining his simple allegorical premise to its breaking point.
The new prequel The First Purge (the fourth overall movie in the series) attempts to explain how the Purge began, explicitly tying itself to the current political climate and trying to offer a set of concrete reasons for its inherently silly sci-fi premise. The movie opens with repurposed actual news footage, depicting a divided country similar to today’s United States, only with all of its problems heightened. The political party known as the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) takes advantage of the chaos to seize control of the country, and the new president proposes a bold experiment to combat America’s problems: one night when all crime is legal.
Marisa Tomei takes on the thankless role of the psychologist who’s come up with this patently moronic idea, and perhaps the greatest crime committed during this inaugural edition of the Purge is the wasting of Tomei’s talents. The theory put forth by Tomei’s Dr. Updale is that allowing people to express their violent tendencies during a prescribed period of time will keep order and peace during the rest of the year, and to test that theory the government seals off the New York City borough of Staten Island for what’s initially just called “the experiment,” an early, localized version of the Purge.
While the circumstances leading up to the Purge may be different, the outcome is pretty much the same as in the previous two movies, once the action moved from the upscale suburbs of the first movie into a dense urban environment. DeMonaco steps down as director this time, replaced by Gerard McMurray (Burning Sands), but he stays on as screenwriter, and he doesn’t open up the franchise’s world in any meaningful or enlightening way. First puts extra emphasis on the idea of the Purge as a means of social engineering, with the government targeting low-income people of color for extermination, even hiring mercenary groups to increase the body count when citizens aren’t sufficiently zealous about killing each other.
The main characters this time around are thinly sketched, with Y’lan Noel of HBO’s Insecure leading the cast as Dmitri, the kind of drug kingpin who’s always looking out for the local community and only committing violence against people who attack him first. He emerges as the hero as he defends his activist ex-girlfriend Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and her younger brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) from the hordes of masked marauders who descend on Staten Island courtesy of the NFFA.
More interesting than these vaguely heroic protagonists are some of the grotesque figures that DeMonaco creates in the margins, most notably Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), a scarred psychopathic drug addict who seems initially like he’s this franchise’s answer to Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees, a full-on horror-movie monster. But Skeletor disappears for long stretches of the movie, only to re-emerge anticlimactically, and a pair of devious old ladies who delight in causing violent mischief barely get a few minutes of screen time.
McMurray stages some mildly engaging action sequences, but he mostly relies on tired jump scares, and the movie’s world seems as threadbare as ever. The series has always been about following a handful of characters during a nationwide event, so narrowing the Purge to one particular city doesn’t change the narrative in any discernible way. DeMonaco reached an effective if somewhat underwhelming conclusion to the story in 2016’s The Purge: Election Year, but this franchise is too financially lucrative to be allowed to end gracefully—there’s already a 10-episode Purge TV series set to premiere in September. As redundant and formulaic as The First Purge is, at least it only lasts about 90 minutes.