A totally dumb, prequel. No, really it’s dumb, but enjoyable mayhem while it lasts.
Damn. The First Purge, the fourth film in The Purge franchise takes the annual night of government sanctioned murder back to its boneheaded roots in a blaxploitation battle royale that’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer. So, no change there. And up and coming director Gerard McMurray, hot off his Sundance Film Festival nominated drama Black Sands (2017) helms the horror juggernaut that bumps and grinds on the edges of Trumpian social warfare before going full hack and slash mode on the impoverished streets of New York’s Staten Island. A handful of urban stereotypes – (the activist, the troubled schoolboy, the drug kingpin and the sassy black lady) find themselves fighting masked Nazis in the Park Tower projects. A pulpy allegory of a divided America in 2018, perhaps… The Purge has always been a sharp-eyed concept, no doubt. But one that seems to continually squander its potential albeit entertainingly so.
We start with a big ol’ dollop of the American dream in tatters as the country’s mostly disenfranchised population riots on the streets over the harsh economic fatalism destroying their lives via Fox-esque news footage. Something must be done, right? The New Founding Fathers of America, the ruling political party of the day want to make murder great again. Surely, the only logical answer to the social economic ills blighting the land of the free. Murder is good, it’s been scientifically proven. Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei – clearly, a three scene paycheque role for the Oscar winning actress) has crunched the data, 12 hours of no holds barred violence will be good for everybody involved. Yeah, but probably more for some than others.
New York’s Staten Island is now ground zero for The First Purge, but why? Well, due to its favourable economic conditions of course, i.e. poor black people like to fight a lot. And probably because the Five Boroughs has a rich cinematic heritage of rampaging slugfests on its streets, the film’s setup most obviously calls to mind Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979), which for a film almost forty years old seems to be a little more racially progressive. Strange, I know. But a very clear line is drawn between the ninety-nine and the one percent. Community activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis) campaigning against the purge and the five thousand dollars of blood money offered to every denizen of the Park Tower Projects, juxtaposed by the frankly inept Dr Updale and NFFA Chief of Staff Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh) both trapped in an ivory office block of white privilege. It could be argued that both sides are being exploited to a larger and lesser degree. Not a single character from either side ever meets or finds a small patch of common ground. It’s us verses them. And rich, white and blonde is bad, which is about as deep as the paper-thin social commentary goes. Oh, well.
Not surprising, really. The hulking hero this time around is Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), a local drug kingpin, who has been profiting from the misery of the Park Tower Projects residents for many a year. He swaggers about the hood a like a young king, utterly tone-deaf to the fact that his own criminality has been more damaging to the community than any purge. A fact Dmitri’s ex-girlfriend Nya points out to him in a stiff yet overly emotive scene in the back of his thugged out sports-hall office. Yes, he’s the moral compass that all others are judged by… a noble killer that puts food on the table. And he’s above the mindless violence paid for by the NFFA. Yeah, but not by much.
The now ubiquitous purge siren wails and the NFFA’s newly minted murder kits are cracked open – a life and death waiver, a baptisia flower, blue contact lenses, which record everything. Masks and weapons are all sold separately, the free-market in action. We follow purgee, Isaiah (Joivan Wade), troubled schoolboy and part-time drug dealer, on his quest for revenge against the thug that maimed him in a failed business transaction. Easier said than done. As Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) – a cartoonish villain spliced from the DNA of horror icons Freddie Kruger and Candy Man – is on his own slash happy adventure cutting down twerking college girls at a purge block party. The outlandish and then some plot shifts into pure blaxploitation territory as the divided community (Nya, Isaiah, Dmitri) comes together to battle military truck driving Klu Klux Klan men. It’s topical, if nothing else.
Masked violence rages on the streets of Staten Island, cinematographer Anastas Michos shoots the wasted urban landscape with a smokey black and red gloss that harkens back to the Bronze Age (1996–2003) of slasher films like I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997). But now in 2018 a whole cast of young and good looking black people can be butchered to a soundtrack of trap bangers from rappers Desiigner, Rich The Kid and Kendrick Lamar. Unthinkable, a decade or two ago, although the two-dimensional characterisation of the central cast – not everybody has to be a drug dealer or user in the hood, just saying – and the sassy quip machine Dolores (Mugga), all feels more than just a little bit stereotypical and stuck in the past.
In this day and age it is okay to punch a Nazi. Or blow-up a whole squad of fascists sending them straight to hell with a block of C4 explosive. It’s a crowd-pleasing and anti-racist sentiment. But in a film so silly, why not just have real Nazis from the 1940’s show up? Better yet, a cloned army of roided-out Donald Trumps in leather gimp masks. And where the hell is Pam Grier, the original blaxploitation queen and the “baddest one-chick hit-squad that ever hit town!”. From the humble beginnings of a micro-budgeted home invasion thriller, James DeMonaco, the writer and director of The Purge (2013), has once again upped the ante writing a pseudo-political horror blockbuster that wants to be Paid In Full (2002) via way of Clockwork Orange (1971). I’d love to see that film, no question. Sadly, DeMonaco’s pen is nowhere near as authentic or sharp, and perhaps he’s missed the opportunity again to fully capitalise on the deep social unrest within America in a smart and empathetic way.
The First Purge knows its audience. In a packed Friday night showing with the Dolby Atmos speakers cranked up to eleven the onscreen carnage will thrill and delight horror fans. But in the cold light of day the inaugural purge feels as empty as a discarded clown mask on a lowly street corner.
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