Thursday, August 9, 2018

It Came From The Cineplex: The First Purge

The First Purge, aka All White People Are Evil, was written by James DeMonaco and directed by Gerard McMurray.

DeMonaco previously wrote Jack (the Robin Williams adult in a kid's body" movie), The Negotiator, Assault On Precinct 13 (the 2005 version) and Skinwalkers. Now that's an eclectic resume! He also created wrote and directed The Purge, The Purge: Anarchy and The Purge: Election Year. This is the first film in the franchise that he hasn't directed.

McMurray previously directed Burning Sands, whatever that is.

Despite the fact that I've seen every one of The Purge movies in the theater, I don't have any particular love for this franchise. I absolutely hated the original The Purge (I even gave it a D+!), as it seemed like a made for Siffy movie that was somehow released to theaters by mistake. It had an intriguing premise that was completely wasted on a bland and claustrophobic home invasion tale. I wanted to see what the Purge was like all across the country, not watch bunch of morons hide inside their house for ninety minutes.

Fortunately The Purge: Anarchy was a vast improvement (which I will admit is damning it with faint praise). No longer were we stuck in a single location with uninteresting characters, as we finally got to venture out on the streets during the annual Purge. It features Frank Grillo as an ex-cop who cleans up the streets during the Purge, and is probably the best Punisher movie Marvel never made.

Sadly, The Purge: Election Year felt like a step down, as it attempted to be a biting, insightful satire, but ended up as a lackluster farce instead. I inexplicably gave it a much too high B- when it came out, but after having time to process it, my opinion of it has dimmed quite a bit. If I had to grade it today, I'd give it a C- at best.

Thankfully, The First Purge manages to redeem the franchise somewhat. It's an action packed (once it gets going) film with a plot that's amazingly and uncomfortably close to real life. 

On the down side, it's not the usual sequel but actually a prequel. This makes sense, since the end of the third film implied that the Purge was outlawed. Unfortunately it suffers from the same problems as all prequels: it tells a story that didn't need to be told, and there's absolutely no tension or surprises, since we already know how it HAS to end.

The whole concept of the Purge has never made much sense to me, as it seems unlikely the government would ever propose such a ludicrous program. The First Purge seems to realize this, and does its best to offer an explanation. It's a pretty sketchy explanation that I don't buy for a minute, but at least it's something.

On the other hand, when The Purge came out back in 2013, the idea of a government-sanctioned crime spree was outrageous and completely unbelievable. Yet here we are five years later, and suddenly the idea of a national Purge doesn't seem all that crazy! With every passing day, real life is becoming more unbelievable than this ridiculous franchise.

So far the film's grossed a very impressive $121 million worldwide, against its modest $13 million budget. That makes it the highest grossing entry in the franchise yet, as the original The Purge made $89 million, The Purge: Anarchy $111 million and The Purge: Election Year $118 million (all worldwide totals). 

Of course it's highly possible this gradual box office increase could simply be due to inflation, and not popularity. Whatever the reason, The First Purge is a financial hit, which means another sequel or prequel or reboot or something is inevitable.


The Plot:
We open on an interview with Skeletor, a crazed junkie who prattles on and on about his intense hatred of society, and how he feels the need to "purge" and kill everyone. His interviewer makes it a point to mention that he likes the word "purge," and tells Skeletor he'll get his wish soon.


It's the near future, and America's an even bigger sh*thole than it is right now. Economic turmoil and racial tensions are at an all time high. In the midst of all this, the New Founding Fathers of America, aka the NFFA, have just been elected. They're determined to return America to its former, conservative (i.e., white) glory, no matter the cost.

To that end, NFFA Chief Of Staff Arlo Sabian and Dr. May Updale (played by Marisa Tomei, the only name you'll recognize in this film) come up with a doozy of an idea. Since they're both white, and therefore inherently evil, they propose a radical social experiment: Completely sealing off Staten Island and making all crime within legal for a twelve hour period. Supposedly this will allow residents to blow off steam and diffuse the dangerous societal powder keg. A Mini Purge, if you will. Sure, why not?

There're lots of protests, and many residents are reluctant to remain on the island during the Purge. Sabian's team counters this by offering residents $5,000 each to stay, and even more if they "participate." To make sure they don't cheat, everyone who stays will be given special high-tech contact lenses that'll record their actions during the Purge.

Cut to Dmitri, a "nice" drug lord that the movie treats like a legitimate businessman. He doesn't want anything to do with the Purge, and informs his employees they'll all be leaving the island for the duration. Capital A, one of Dmitri's dealers, wants to stay and purge their enemies. Dmitri slaps him down hard in front of everyone and threatens to kill him if he doesn't follow orders. If you don't immediately realize that Capital A will end up turning on Dmitri, then you've never seen a movie before.

Elsewhere on the island, a young man named Isaiah decides to try his hand at selling drugs. Unfortunately he has an unpleasant encounter with Skeletor, who slashes Isaiah's neck with a razor and runs off. Isaiah runs home to patch up his wound. Just then his older sister Nya enters, fresh from an Anti-Purge demonstration. She sees his injury, realizes he's been dealing and stalks off to find Dmitri.

Nya confronts Dmitri (who she used to date) and angrily accuses him of trying to turn Isaiah into one of his dealers. Dmitri assures her it wasn't his idea, and offers to try and talk him out of it. Nya tells him to keep away from her and her family. He offers to take her and Isaiah off the island during the Purge, but noble creature that she is, Nya insists on staying to try and help people.

The night of the Purge arrives, and everyone who's going ashore leaves by ferry. Nya enters a church, where she sees her friend Luisa and her daughter Selina, as well as her sassy comedy relief neighbor Dolores. The church is filled with residents planning to hunker down and ride out the Purge in safety.

In the distance a siren howls, signalling the start of the Purge. For the next twelve hours, ALL crime is legal on the island. Sabian and Updale anxiously monitor Staten Island from a control center somewhere.

Dolores asks about Isaiah, and Nya says he left to stay with their uncle in Brooklyn. Unknown to her, Isaiah secretly decided to stay in order to earn the $5,000 and get revenge on Skeletor for cutting him. He opens his Official Purge Package, which contains the camera contacts. He puts them in, and they cause his eyes to glow an eerie blue.

Meanwhile, a man tries to test out the Purge by prying open an ATM. He's interrupted by Skeletor, who's strapped hypodermic needles to one hand like an urban Freddy Krueger. Skeletor's also wearing contacts, so Sabian and his team can see what he's doing. Skeletor guts the ATM robber like a fish, and Sabian happily announces the Purge has its very first kill of the night. Um... hooray, I guess?

Sabian's enthusiasm is short-lived though, as few citizens actually turn to murder. In fact most of them simply start throwing huge block parties. This simply won't do, as Sabian's evil white reputation's on the line. He promised his NFFA bosses the Purge would be a bloodbath, and he'll be ruined if he doesn't deliver.

Cut to Isaiah, who wanders into one of the block parties. He runs into some friends, who see his glowing eyes and tell him to forget all this Purge nonsense and get drunk with them. Just then Skeletor appears, and starts stabbing various party-goers, causing the crowd to panic and run. Isaiah pulls a gun on Skeletor, but can't make himself pull the trigger. He drops the gun and takes off running, as Skeletor follows.

Isaiah runs through the streets, looking for a place to hide. He encounters a few murderous Purgers, but manages to escape. He holes up inside a building, and calls Nya for help. She tells him to stay put, and stupidly leaves the church in order to endanger herself and eat up some runtime.

Meanwhile, two hookers show up at Dmitri's apartment to keep him occupied during the Purge. They try to kill him in the middle of their foreplay, but Dmitri easily disarms them. They tearfully confess they were sent by Captial A, who wants to eliminate Dmitri and take over his business.

Nya searches for Isaiah, and is attacked by Skeletor. Isaiah suddenly appears and stabs him in the back, saving his sister's life. They run for their lives back to the church. When they arrive, they're shocked to see dead bodies lying everywhere, and look on in horror as several armed Purgers exit the church and drive off. Luisa and Selina appear, telling Nya they sneaked out the back when the shooting started. Nya asks about Dolores, but no one's seen her. The four make their way to Nya's apartment, hoping to survive the night there. Nya's overjoyed when she sees Dolores somehow made it there before them.

Meanwhile, Updale monitors the Purge in the control center, and notices several highly organized teams driving around killing civilians. She confronts Sabian, who says the Purge wasn't generating enough kills, so he hired mercenaries to up the murder count. He says America's become too overpopulated by impoverished minorities, who are a drain on society. Wiping out these undesirables is the only way to save the country. DID YOU GET THAT, AUDIENCE? THE EVIL WHITE LEADERS THINK KILLING POOR PEOPLE OF COLOR WILL SOLVE THE COUNTRY'S PROBLEMS! IT'S A PRETTY SUBTLE CONCEPT, SO YOU MIGHT EASILY MISS IT WHILE THE BAD WHITE MAN IS TWIRLING HIS MUSTACHE.

Even though Updale's also white, she's horrified by Sabian's callous "final solution," and tries to alert the media. Sabian orders his guards to drag her to a vacant lot, where she's coldly and callously executed.

Meanwhile, Dmitri and his crew roll up to Capital A's crib. Dmitri tells him he knows about his assassination attempt, and murders him and his men on the spot. Just then one of the merc teams drives by and begins firing on Dmitri's group. There's a big shootout, and Dmitri's forces eventually win. They take the mercs' guns and head back to their old neighborhood.

There they find Purgers dressed in KKK robes (because all white people are evil) shooting up the place, pinning down several of Dmitri's friends. He and his posse kill the Klansmen and save the residents. Unfortunately their victory is short lived, as Sabian's monitoring the situation. He sends out a pack of NFFA drones, which kill everyone but Dmitiri.

Dmitri takes a radio off a dead merc, and overhears another group planning to hit Nya's apartment building. He calls her and warns her, then gears up and heads for the building. The mercs arrive and begin systematically killing everyone on each floor of the building. Nya and the others grab a few makeshift weapons and barricade themselves in a back closet.

Dmitri arrives at the building and shuts off the power to give himself an advantage, as annoying emergency strobes begin flashing for the next ten minutes. He works his way up the building, killing the endless supply of mercs as the film suddenly turns into a carbon copy of The Raid.

A couple of mercs burst into Nya's apartment, but she shoots them in the legs while Isaiah viciously stabs them to death. Just then Dmitri arrives, but before he can get everyone out, even more mercs appear. They shoot up the apartment, pinning down Dmitri and the others. He peeks around a corner and sees them setting up an RPG! Before they can set it off though, Skeletor pops up out of nowhere, and kills several mercs before he's shot dead. Um... hooray for the violent, murderous junkie, I guess?

Dmitri takes advantage of the confusion and grabs a C4 explosive and tosses it at the surviving mercs. He shoots it, causing it to explode and wipe them out once and for all. That's not how C4 works, but let's just go with it or we'll be here all day.

Dmitri and Nya reunite, and I guess we're supposed to believe they still have feelings for one another. Just then the siren goes off, signalling the end of the Purge. The others emerge from the closet, and everyone makes their way downstairs and onto the street. The other citizens cheer Dmitri, even though there's no possible way they could know about his heroics in the apartment building. Isaiah asks Dmitri what happens next, and he says they have to start fighting back.

Cut to Sabian on the phone with the President, who congratulates him on the success of the experiment. Sabian then publicly announces the Purge was an unqualified success, and will be rolled out nationwide the next year.

• So far I've given the movie a ton of crap for its "All White People Are Evil" message. Without fail, every single white person in the entire film is vicious, corrupt and villainous, while every person of color is noble, courageous and valiant. Even Dmitri, who's a drug dealer by trade, eventually takes charge and becomes the film's ostensible hero.

For the record I'm not upset or offended by idea, as I happen to agree with it. I'm fully aware that the bloated white plutocrats in our government are most definitely responsible for the hellscape that passes for our current society.

My problem with this idea is with its execution. Subtle it ain't, as the film's message is presented to us like a donkey braying in a library. You know that famous Star Trek episode that tried to tell us racism was bad by presenting us with aliens who were black on one side and white on the other? Multiply that episode by a million, and you'll have a good idea what this film's like.

Satire needs to be understated and clever, not broad and obnoxious. They definitely needed to turn down the message a notch or twelve.
• In the opening seconds of the film, Skeletor casually uses the word "purge" during an interview. This inspires his questioner to use the term for the upcoming social experiment.

Sighhhhhhhhhh... did we really need an origin story for the NAME of the goddamned franchise? Must EVERY tiny detail be explained these days? How I long for the days when movies let you figure out things for yourself, and didn't spoon feed every minor point to you.

• I saw both Superfly and The First Purge in the cineplex in the same week, and oddly enough, BOTH films feature "heroes" who are examples of the "Drug Lord With A Heart Of Gold" stereotype. Both characters are vicious, cold-blooded killers, but deep down they're actually nice guys. Plus, to paraphrase True Lies, the men they killed were all bad!

• This is the first movie in the franchise that doesn't feature actor Edwin Hodge as Dante Bishop. Dante appeared in the first three films, although he was unnamed in The Purge, called Dwayne in The Purge: Anarchy and changed his name to Dante in The Purge: Election Year. He was also killed off in the third film.

• Early in the first act, Skeletor slashes Isaiah's throat, which seems like it oughta be a pretty grievous injury. Apparently not though, as in the next scene we see Isaiah in the bathroom, covering up the wound with a single band-aid!t 

• Isaiah has a poster for the upcoming Halloween sequel/reboot on the wall of his room. That's interesting, as the movie hasn't come out yet as of this review. This isn't necessarily a mistake though, as The First Purge takes place sometime in the near future.

By the way, Halloween (2018) and The First Purge are both produced by Blumhouse Studios, which explains the appearance of the poster.

• I've always been a fan of Marisa Tomei, and was honestly surprised to see her in a movie like this. Apparently the producers could only afford her for one day, because she's in the film for ten minutes, tops.

Unfortunately she's terrrrrrrrible in this movie, as she gives new meaning to the phrase "phoning it in." Every time she appears onscreen she literally looks like she'd rather be anywhere else. 

She won a goddamned Oscar® for corn's sake, but you'd sure never know it from watching her here. So what happened? Was she contractually obligated to be in the movie or something? Did she not get along with the director?

• Citizens who participate in the Purge wear special contact lens cameras, which make their eyes glow with an eerie light. For some reason, each person's eyes glow a different color. 

This isn't necessarily a mistake, as it's highly possible there's an assortment of lens colors. However, the lenses seem to somehow be tuned in to the temperament of the person wearing them. Isaiah's lenses make his eyes glow a soft, pleasant blue, while Skeletor's are a sinister red. Funny how that just happened to work out, eh?

By the way, halfway through the movie the characters abruptly stop wearing the contacts for various reasons, as the film just sort of forgets about them. I'm betting the "glowing contact lens" CGI effect was really expensive, and they couldn't afford to use it for the entire movie.

• Longtime readers of my movie reviews know I have a major beef with The Purge franchise. See, every film in the series states that ALL crime is legal during the Purge. ALL. CRIME. 

And yet in every film, the only crime anyone ever engages in is plain old murder. Yawn!

What about bank robbery? If someone stole a million bucks during the Purge, would they get to keep the money after it was over? Could a person drive a brand new car off a lot without fear of incarceration? Cook all the meth you wanted? Steal someone's identity? Pirate hundreds of movies? 

Apparently these questions are none of our business, as the movies focus on murder alone. How boring.

Happily, at long, long last, this movie actually bucks the trend. As the Purge begins, we see one lone character trying to pry open an ATM and steal the money inside. Sadly, this brief glimpse into other forms of crime lasts a grand total of five seconds, and is never brought up again.

• The First Purge actually contains a couple of interesting ideas. Sabian (the evil white government man) is dead sure that once the Purge begins, everyone on Staten Island will immediately begin preying on one another.

There are a couple of instances of looting and a robbery or two, but for the most part the the residents either sit peacefully in their homes, or throw a series of rousing block parties! I have a feeling that's probably what would happen if the Purge was a real thing. Most people would just ignore it and try to go about their everyday lives.

In fact there's so little action during the early hours of the Purge that Sabian has to call in mercenaries to start murdering residents and stir up trouble! 

There's a lesson in there somewhere, that the majority of people are basically decent, and just want to be left alone.

• When Nya's out looking for Isaiah, she's almost pulled down into the sewer by a perverted Purger. Fortunately she manages to escape by kicking her attacker in the face, and calls him a "pussy-grabbing motherf*cker!"

This is obviously a nod— make that a dig— at President Trumpenstein, who famously bragged about "grabbing women by the pussy" before he was elected.

• In the third act, Updale is horrified when she discovers Sabian's plan to save the economy by wiping out impoverished minorities. 

Why's she so shocked? She's the one who came up with the idea of the Purge to begin with! You know, the social experiment that encourages citizens to "blow off steam" by killing one another? She has just as much blood on her hands as Sabian does, so why the bizarre, last minute attempt to redeem her character?

• I liked The First Purge OK, but even I have to admit it has its problems. For one thing, it takes a long, lonnnnnnnng time to finally get rolling. The action doesn't really take off until the third act, when it feels like an entirely different movie starts up and it turns into a shot-for-shot remake of 2011's The Raid

Which is fine, I guess at this point there's nothing new under the sun, and if you're gonna swipe your plot from another movie, you might as well steal from the best!

The movie also feels fractured at times, as if the director couldn't decide which character to focus on. Isaiah starts out as the ostensible protagonist, but he's shoved aside by his sister Nya halfway through the movie. 

Then it the previously mentioned third act, the movie decides Dmitri's the hero, as he saves the day by violently murdering every evil white person he sees.

And therein lies the movie's biggest problem— the notion that violence can only be defeated by even greater violence. That may get the audience's fists pumping, but it's probably not the best message to hammer home in our current powder-keg of a society.

• By the way, this "rah-rah" ending, in which Dmitri The Friendly Drug Dealer is hailed as a hero by the residents of the island, is a hollow victory at best. We've already seen how the next three movies play out, so his seeming victory here means absolutely nothing.

It's obvious the studio forced this scene into the script because they wanted an upbeat ending, even if one wasn't possible and made no goddamned sense.

• Welp, The First Purge contains something I've never seen before— a commercial during the end credits! 

At the end of the movie the credits roll for a couple of minutes, then suddenly stop and fade to black. A goddamned commercial for USA Network's new The Purge TV series then starts up. Once it's over, the credits resume. THAT'S new!

The First Purge is an unnecessary— and unasked for
 prequel to the franchise, which attempts to explain just how the whole thing started. Unfortunately it lacks a definite main character, has some pacing issues and beats the audience over the head with its blatant message. That said, it's not a terrible film, as it actually contains a few decent concepts. I give it a B-.

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