After the last, rather tepid, Purge I personally predicted that that special (thankfully fictional) night in America, where everyone puts on overly elaborate head gear and enthusiastically get their homicide on, would be the last. Shows what I knew, because not only did we get a full fledged TV series and racially charged prequel, but a fifth installment drops sometime in 2021- I don’t think I could have been more damn wrong if I had tried. But then, as long as the world’s politics continue to be as turbulent a kaiju’s bowel movement I guess Blumhouse is always going to have material to keep pumping out their particular brand of socially conscious horror/thrillers; so, after three attempts – two fine, one great – has Jason Blum’s factory come up with anything new in the fourth movie in this bloody franchise?
The First Purge (and by that I mean the fourth one) is a prequel set an alternate 2014 to the world we know and the New Founding Fathers (think psychotic rich white guys who now openly run the country) are proposing a “social experiment” which is claimed will expel the pent up anger and frustration building in the poorer regions of the good ol’ US of A. The plan, cooked up by psychiatrist Marisa Tomei (blimey, what’s gotten into Aunt May?) involves a twelve hour period where all crime will become utterly legal and will be limited to Staten Island with the intent to roll it out worldwide if it’s pronounced a success.
The inhabitants are free to leave beforehand but those who stay get paid handsomely and if you actually go out onto the streets and participate you get paid even more and score a nifty pair of nicely creepy, glow in the dark contact lenses that records your actions right back to the assessors. Public opinion is unsurprisingly a sense of outrage, but the New Founding Fathers aren’t about to leave things to chance and have stacked the deck in favour of their master plan; to use the Purge to level the playing field between the disparity between the rich and the poor by having them kill each other once a year. As they send out masked mercenarys to bump up the body count we follow disparate groups of people caught up in the “legalized” madness as they try their best to avoid being literally murdered by their government to become a statistic. Be it defiant anti-Purge activist Nya to initially self-obsessed drug kingpin and shrewd businessman Dmitri and everyone inbetween, everyone is in the crosshairs as the government is simply unwilling to let the Purge fail.
I asked earlier if the filmmakers have anything new for us this time round and the technical answer is no. No they haven’t. It’s pretty much the same old winning formula of the second movie regurgitated all over again but with the emphasis predominantly fixed on race this time instead if class. There’s the standard 30 minutes of build up followed by scene after scene of people wandering the streets blundering from one horror/action set piece to the next and to be fair, they’ve got the Purge template down pat now with the pre-purge antics leading up to that dreaded, iconic siren, which anounces that anything goes. Lining up cannon fodder characters who usually don’t deserve the fates waiting for them we then settle down to witness increasingly violent bursts of brutality until the sun comes up and a vague sense of normality ensues. Business as usual.
However, the main twists here are thus – this time we are witnessing the FIRST ever Purge, and we get into the technicalities of how such a thing could ever possibly be accepted that goes from the social experiment that’s initially proposed to the mardi gras of murder we know it becomes. Obviously, due to the cartoonishly sinister villains – who are worryingly becoming less cartoonish each and every year – the game is rigged from the start against everyday folk, which leads to the second wrinkle in the established formula. Blumhouse has learnt a little something from it’s breakout hit Get Out while predicting the BLM movement by smartly making the majority of the cast black Americans. It makes perfect sense in the context of the movie, it’s handled pretty naturally and more representation in any genre is always a good thing, especially in a dystopian future where you can stab someone in the chest because the President says so. It’s also worth noting that despite the Founding Fathers being the standard caucasian, Illuminati types you (hopefully) only find in a movie, the film’s ad campaign made no bones whatsoever about aiming it’s crosshairs at the Trump administration with the primary teaser image for the film being a suspiciously familiar red cap. However, despite the MAGA baiting and being generally a welcome step up from it’s fairly generic third instalment, there’s still a distinct “seen it all before” vibe that kinda hints that the series is pretty much all out of ideas.
A strange issue I did notice is that Dmitri, the main hero of the film, is a drug dealing kingpin who only stays on the island because moving his product would be way too risky, but by the end of the movie he’s has tapped into his inner Wesley Snipes and wiped out whole battalions of lunatics while channelling Bruce Willis’ vest from Die Hard. After that it’s then strangely left up in the air if he’s just going to go back to dealing after announcing that he’s going to become a defender of the people and instead of being ambiguous in a cool, anti-hero, John Carpenter sort of way, just leaves you genuinely uncertain as to how to feel. Maybe you’re supposed to think it’s going to play out as some sort of redemption bid only to pull the rug out from you, but selling drugs to the community in order to save the community sounds more like a joke from Black Dynamite than a thought provoking ending.
Plus, as per usual, there is some truly hideous overacting on display here from the citizens who choose to don spikey headgear and glow-in-the-dark contact lenses, with a scarred up drug fiend known only as “Skeletor” giving possibly the most unsubtle performance of the series – and that’s fucking saying something – as he literally spits his lines everywhere with bug eyed intensity.
It’s a relief then that the action is so capably handled. The body count is healthy and brutal and makes the run time jog by quite nicely and while repetitive and quite episodic, it’s certainly not dull.
So while it may not be the political outcry the filmmakers wanted it to be, The First Purge does just enough to be thoroughly fine in a beer and pizza kinda way – it just doesn’t manage to “Trump” the second one… BOOM! POLITICS!