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Arguably no other production house in Hollywood has developed a reputation for high-concept entertainment on par with Blumhouse. Universal's resident horror division has delivered relatively consistent results in recent years, with The Purge standing out as one of its crown jewels. Now it's in its fourth installment with Gerard McMurray's The First Purge, and while the prequel stands out as the weakest installment in the series, it's still an enjoyably brutal adventure with some significant bright spots in terms of its action and its deepening of this universe.
As the name suggests, The First Purge tells the story of the first-ever Purge night in this fictional universe -- though it's clear that the movie has lifted recent socio-political events to make it feel far less like fiction. Scaling down the scope of Purge night to encompass Staten Island, New York, the story focuses on a powerful gangster named Dmitri (Y'lan Noel) as he grapples with his morality while trying to protect Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and Isaiah (Joivan Wade) during the lawless evening. Meanwhile, miles away from the carnage, The First Purge also gives us insight into the mastermind behind the event, Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), and her involvement with the New Founding Fathers political party that has taken control of the United States through fear-mongering and deceit.
If you have followed the Purge franchise over the course of the last few installments, then you likely already know that it has evolved from a simple home-invasion concept to a full-blown political satire series. That idea becomes even more pronounced in The First Purge, as real-world elements (from clothing worn by some particularly brutal Purgers to remarks made by characters during the night) feel lifted directly from current headlines. Nothing is subtle about this movie, but then again, the franchise has never attempted to embrace subtlety, so why start now?
With that said, while the political satire feels a bit more current and relevant as the prequel endeavors to create a more realistic world where The Purge could happen, The First Purge often loses sight of what it's trying to say about human nature. There's an incredibly interesting narrative element injected into the universe that suggests that it's not actually in human nature to Purge (hinting that the nation-wide version of the ritual is built on a lie), but that often feels undercut by several different plotlines about genuinely psychopathic people on Staten Island who DO want to Purge. Those two ideas fundamentally can't (and don't) work together, and The First Purge never really seems like it lands on a specific point that it's trying to make about human nature. Does the night work because The New Founding Fathers made sure it would, or are humans prone to Purge? We still don't know.
As a matter of fact, we should note the actual Purgers stand out as some of the weakest elements of the movie this time around. The way those who choose to engage in violence and descend into madness never really feels earned. In extreme close-up psychological evaluations conducted throughout the first act, we see the faces of people who feel wronged compelled to Purge, but by the time the evening starts we're faced with the same giggling, masked psychopaths who characterize every other Purge movie. There's a leap from law-abiding citizen to full-blown maniac somewhere in there, but the movie never takes the time to show it or devote enough time to it.
Of course, if satire is not something that you're particularly interested in, then there's still plenty of violence and bloodshed to go around in The First Purge. One thing to note about this particular installment is that the folks behind the series seem interested in moving away from the straight horror roots of the series to focus on a stronger blend of horror and action. In fact, most of the scares in the movie feel genuinely cheap, with awful jump scares seemingly thrown into the mix to jolt the audience when things get too sleepy or calm. It's the cheapest form of horror in the arsenal of a horror filmmaker, and it weakens the strength of other portions of the movie.
This lack of emphasis on traditional horror feels rooted in the fact that The First Purge seems far more interested in moving away from the conventional scares that Blumhouse has become known for in recent years. The horror mainly stems from the premise itself, and now the series has moved into a place (which was set up by The Purge: Anarchy and The Purge: Election Year) to focus on genuinely badass heroes rebelling against an unjust fascist state. Now we're in John Carpenter-esque Escape From New York territory, where the heroes always seem to have a fighting chance.
Because of this, Dimitri stands out as one of the most capable and cool heroes that we have seen in the series (what I wouldn't give to see him team up with Fran Grillo's Leo Barnes in another movie) and we get some fantastic fights and gunplay during The First Purge's third act (which is a claustrophobic assault in which the film really peaks). The shift to an almost John Wick level of combat competency might jar some fans looking for straight horror, but even with The First Purge's somewhat sloppy storytelling, it helps set the stage for what this series could become in future installments.
The First Purge is arguably the weakest entry in the Purge canon, but it's still a fun action-horror romp that works best when it deepens the mythology of this horrific world. For the most part, the series has moved away from its slasher roots, but its continued examination of human psychology (blunt and overt as that examination may be) continues to feel interesting and fresh.