Review by Bradley Smith
I had mixed feelings when I saw the original Purge film a few years ago. It was an intriguing and scary premise, that all crime becomes legal for one night a year. But the film kinda bored me beyond that premise, even with actors that I liked. I still have not seen the two sequels, so I was not too interested in a prequel. But when I was offered the chance to cover the screening of the prequel, The First Purge, I said “Sure” because I like going to screenings as long as I’m available. To my surprise, once the movie started rolling, I got really into it and was actually enjoying myself. The First Purge is full of action, political intrigue, thrills, suspense, and some scares; though the scariest part is still the premise, made worse by plausible politics.
Before there was an annual nationwide “Purge”, there was an experiment contained within one of the boroughs of New York, Staten Island. Prospective participants are given psych evaluations and promised money if they stay on the island during the experiment, more if they participate, which is monitored by tracking implants, armed drones, and contact lenses that record everything the wearer sees. Given that the group behind the experiment is targeting poorer communities, many people jump at the opportunity, whether they actually want to participate or not. Protesters try to stop the experiment or discourage participation, but many people stay and the hours tick down to the start of the experiment.
Among those staying on the island are a few stereotypical characters: Dmitri (Y’Lan Noel; Insecure), a drug kingpin who is very protective of his city; Nya (Lex Scott Davis; Training Day tv series), a struggling activist and her somewhat naïve younger brother, Isaiah (Joivan Wade; Doctor Who); a wisecracking older woman; and a psycho who is scary in his own right. Behind the experiment is a politician trying to keep his promises to certain groups while harming others. And Marisa Tomei costars as the person who created and oversees the experiment.
The film, much like the experiment, starts off slow, building the tension by introducing the characters, the experiment, the neighborhood and community, and motivations. At first, people don’t seem inclined to act violently, but things pick up, rather predictably, when the psycho almost literally crashes the party. However, there is more to this night than meets the eye as a mystery unfolds that pits the community and unexpected heroes against a corrupt government.
Overall, I enjoyed the movie. It is rare that I root for a drug dealer, but here we are. There is an entertaining story as well as social and political commentary worth discussing afterward. While it would not be my first choice during its opening weekend, it is one I would recommend to thriller fans.