Tuesday, July 10, 2018

We Finally Get A Good Purge Movie With The First Purge

It took them four movies, but we finally got a good Purge movie. Not a great one, certainly, and it still feels like the full potential of this franchise's basic premise has yet to be tapped, but this is the very first Purge movie to actually work for me. Going back to the very first night of The Purge could have been a recipe for a fan-service heavy prequel, but aside from a laughable explanation behind where the name Purge comes from in the opening scene (still not as bad as that explanation we got for Han Solo's last name at least), The First Purge avoids the worst tendencies of the worst prequels, like shoehorned in cameos from younger versions of characters from prior movies.

Instead, we get a brand new story that follows how the very first Purge was conducted as an experiment in a Staten Island neighborhood, a process that incites heavy amounts of protest from its residents, including Nya (Lex Scott Davis), whose brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) is looking to exact some revenge during this first-ever Purge. Once The Purge actually gets underway, there's not quite as much violence being committed as the government would like to see, so some armed militias, including KKK factions, are sent in to kill off the populace and stir up trouble. Nya, Isaiah and Nya's ex-boyfriend Dimitri (Y'lan Noel) are now all trying to survive this lawless night, making this yet another Purge movie about a group of individuals inadvertently trapped outside during this fateful 12-hour period.

Unlike prior entries though, more concrete baddies have been brought in to help increase the amount of tension in the plot. Prior Purge movies had disposable bloodthirsty foes like a teenage shoplifter or a group of snooty Purgers eager to slaughter a homeless man that never quite managed to become as scary as they could for a multitude of reasons, namely in that they simply lacked menace whenever they were on-screen, they never felt like believably imposing threats. But here, The First Purge taps into real-life horrors like white supremacist groups or drones as entities that would use this 12-hour span of government-sanctioned debauchery to cause mayhem and destruction on the government's behalf.

The Purge series has always had not-so-subtle political elements to it, but this is the first time where it feels like elements of politically relevant reality are being properly woven into a Purge movie in a way that heightens their scariness. The people committing all of these violent acts feel like recognizable extensions of reality rather than the unimposing cartoonish figures of would-be menace that terrorized prior Purge protagonists. The current political zeitgeist fuels the fire in the belly of The First Purge and it ensures that this one has more of a personality to it, as well as being scarier, than its predecessors. Director Gerard McMurray, in his first time directing a Purge film, proves to be extremely helpful in making the suspense of The First Purge well-realized. McMurray shows some real talent in knowing how to use camerawork to accentuate suspense in sequences like the one where Isiah is hiding from Purgers in an abandoned building. McMurray knows how to put you on the edge of your seat visually so it's a tragedy that the script frequently undercuts his directorial talent.

James DeMonaco shows some improvement as a writer in penning his fourth Purge screenplay, but he still struggles mightily in numerous areas, among them being the task of penning believable dialogue, there's a lot of clumsy expository dialogue (particularly in the first act) that the cast struggles mightily to sell. Worst of all is a subplot with Maria Tomei as the creator of the Purge that feels entirely disconnected from the main premise and just feels like superfluous world-building designed only to emphasize the already highly obvious plan of the government official behind this night of legalized crime. DeMonaco's double standard for how he depicts women in pain versus men in pain (which really undercut the underwhelming The Purge: Election Year) also persists here to a disappointing degree.

The presence of a local disturbed and highly violent individual by the name of Skeletor also doesn't fit with the rest of DeMonaco's story despite a comitted performance by Rotimi Paul, this Jason Vorhees-like slasher movie villain just doesn't fit with the more grounded aesthetic of the rest of the motion picture. On the other hand, the character is at least vibrantly realized and that leads to the best part of DeMonaco's writing this go-around; he's learned the value of making characters distinctive. If you're gonna have one-note characters in your movie, at least have the decency to make them memorably unique so they can be entertaining when they're on-screen. There's a trio of middle-aged guys known as The Three Wise Men who have five minutes, tops, of screentime, yet their distinct personalities mean they leave more of an impact than 90% of the main characters in the last three movies. The First Purge can't overcome all the flaws of its predecessor, goodness no, but this is a far more distinct and interesting creation than what has come before it. We're still not quite at the ideal Purge movie, but for now, The First Purge will do nicely.

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