The First Purge can’t seem to decide what it is trying to be. It utilizes random jumpscares and trying-to-be-creepy masks to try and achieve a horror feel, but never has the pure terror of an actual horror film. It fails to produce any moments that make your heart race despite constantly putting characters in life or death situations thus the label “thriller” doesn’t seem to apply. And the final bit of identity crisis comes in the form of a third act that features two fairly lengthy, pure action sequences. When a film doesn’t know what it wants to be, it is hard for the audience to simply take it for what it is.
The key goal for this prequel is clearly to establish how the purge came to be. To be fair, this the only area where the film succeeds. Though it is done in a very ham-fisted way, director Gerard McMurray is able to lean heavily on current events to show how the purge arose in the cinematic world — and, in turn, how it theoretically could come about in our world. Relying heavily on post-2016 America as a template, the film posits that racial and economic tensions led to the rise of a third American political party that decides to implement an experimental purge limited to 12 hours on Staten Island. As the film (and the purge) progress, we continue to see flourishes of political and social elements. These range from social protests to a gunfight with hooded klansman to conspiracy-fueled developments regarding the government’s involvement with the purge. While it succeeds in adding a layer of realism to a fairly nonsensical plot, the movie only uses these as simple setups and segues for the franchise as opposed to a mechanism for a form of biting commentary.
Throughout the whole runtime, it feels like the purge is simply lurking in the background. It only comes to the forefront when one of the side characters or cutscenes needs to be used to explain how the purge came to be. The main characters are obviously in the purge, but their story seems to be fairly generic and something more along the lines of the 90’s Denis Leary and Emilio Estevez classic Judgment Night. The people they are running from are the bad guys that existed in their lives before the purge as opposed to something uniquely evil that was born of the purge.
It is sort of bizarre that the best scene in the movie is one of the aforementioned action scenes in the last act. After our drug lord hero magically transforms into a tank-top-clad hybrid of John McClane and John Rambo, he goes on a shooting spree to work his way up to his friends on the 14th floor of an apartment building. Despite being a D-level take on The Raid, this is the only time where any sort of artistic value in filmmaking is shown. But since it occurs fresh off the heels of a horrifically bad fog-laden, CGI-blood-spraying scene a few minutes earlier, it is possible that it just seemed well-crafted by comparison.
There isn’t much to like about The First Purge unless you are a die-hard fan of the franchise. Having only seen the first in the franchise, this film feels totally unnecessary. Spending 97 minutes to show what could have been explained in a 3-5 minute breakdown in any of the sequels is complete overkill.