Review: “The First Purge” Tons of Action, not much Horror

The Purge movies have been a big hit. My husband loved the first, “The Purge.” When I read the synopsis and watched the trailer for “The First Purge”, I was intrigued by the idea of the filmmakers giving us more of the origin to what could make the United States institute The Purge, a 12 hour period in which all crime is legal. I was hoping for a psychological intrigue. While the movie had some interesting political commentary, there was less psychological and more action with a lot less origin story than I was expecting.

In “The First Purge”, a new political party, the New Founding Fathers of America, or NFFA have come into power, promising a change. In order to bring crime below 1%, they decide to institute an experiment in Staten Island. They encourage people to sign up, using money to incentivize people, not only to remain on the Island but also to actively participate in the violence. In the midst of those who want to embrace the night, there are others, like Nya (Lex Scott Davis) who speaks out against it.
While Nya is trying to prevent people from participating, her own brother, Isaiah (Joivan Wade) wants to join in to get revenge on druggie Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) who attacks him, causing him to lose face. Nya’s ex-boyfriend, drug dealer Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) wants to protect his people and his product. But nothing goes as expected during the night, not even what the architect Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei) has anticipated. People aren’t hurting each enough so the NFFA takes matters into their own hands but the men they send in get more than they expect from the people of Staten Island.

The movie is billed as a dystopian action horror. Some of these various elements are handled well. One of the aspects, the political commentary, spotlights the current climate in the United States very well, shining a light on the racism and despair people are feeling as the economy struggles. Most people can empathize with those feelings. What is truly frightening is how close to reality this entire film could be, if events in politics continue along the path they have been going. One of the themes was the idea that the people on Staten Island are expendable because of their low status economically. Unfortunately, this type of thinking is believable and can be seen in our current climate.

The action is well emphasized. One of the most dynamic and compelling performances was Y’lan Noel as Dmitri as he starts out protecting his own drug crew and ends up helping his entire neighborhood, coming to the rescue of the people he cares about. While not entirely new, I loved that the black man is the hero of the story and takes out the white men who are killing his people. His action sequences helped the story move and I enjoyed his acting as he embraces being the hero.
Not only does Y’lan Noel perform believably as Dmitri, Lex Scott Davis is equally good as Nya. Her passion to protect her community is there from the beginning and her love for her brother is developed well. Joivan Wade’s performance as a despairing young man in a community struggling to survive is realistic. There were also other actors who helped the story. Mugga as Dolores, Nya’s neighbor brings us some of the lighter moments with much needed humor and Luna Lauren Velez as Luisa with her daugher Selina (Kristen Solis) give us characters to root for amidst the violence. Marisa Tomei is interesting as Dr. Updale. Lastly, I enjoyed Mo McRae as 7 & 7, Dmitri’s right hand who helps him protect their community.
Where the movie falters is in the horror aspects. There are some special effects like masks and other bits that help the movie be a bit creepy but overall, it wasn’t as frightening as it could have been. Part of this is in the buildup. The movie synopsis says that we are supposed to see the buildup to the First Purge. I was hoping for some of the psychological reasoning but we get very little of this, even in Dr. Updale’s scenes. Most of what we do receive is told to us rather than allowing the viewer to experience some of the events for themselves. In addition, there are scenes that set up an expectation for certain events to happen but instead, they never follow through. One critical character is Skeletor who is billed as being a crazy killer. While we see some of this, in the end, his character feels wasted by not being used to his full potential. What I expected to happen with his character never develops.

There is also very little that is new. Most of what is addressed in this film was introduced and developed in the earlier movies. While I was hoping for something new, especially with this being a prequel, there really weren’t any surprises. While I liked Y’Lan Noel as the hero, the drug dealer ending up being a protector, that spin was not unusual enough and the film sets him up as the hero so it’s no surprise when he does choose to help. And while I liked the acting, the characters were not well developed, only a few people with clear motivations. All the gangs, for example, are not truly developed, ending up being one dimensional, villains for hire.
While it is predictable and I wanted more development both on the concept and the characters, I did overall enjoy some aspects. I liked the acting. Most of the main characters provided a solid performance and I enjoyed Lex Scott Davis as a strong, female lead. Her character doesn’t wait for a man to save her and is willing to help fight. I loved the social commentary with white people being the bad guys and people of color being the heroes. We need more of that element in film. I think if you like the other Purge movies, you will like those aspects within this film. I do recommend you go in expecting action, not horror and violence more than psychological tension.
Rating: 3 out 5 masks

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