Sometimes I’m too lazy for a full-out piece. Sometimes everything I’ve got to say about a film can be summarized in a few sentences, or stream of consciousness. So herewith, a quick-n-dirty on…
Nutshell: The poster on the left tells you all you need to know about the heavy-handed messaging in First. But all the promise the prequel trailers had dies quickly under the weight of way too many cookie-cutter cliches and character stereotypes. Let’s hope the next one – and I’m sure there’ll be one – makes the series great again. Grade: D+
“What do you mean, participate?”
Thoughts: I have mixed feelings about the Purge series. Anarchy took the insular world of the first film and successfully dragged it out into the street. But Election Year replaced ideas with ham and upped the action to try to mask it. Now with First, director Gerald McMurray (Burning Sands) tries to get back to message horror, but the awkward plot stumbles around, trying to do too much with too little. And the story itself was promising as hell; Staten Island becomes Ground Zero in an “experiment” that people call the Purge; get your ya-yas out in one night, and you’ll be better the rest of the year. (Never mind that whole “cycle of violence” thing. Pish-posh y’all.)
Instead of focusing on disparities among those who decide to hold the experiment (Whitey McWhiterson White People) and where they decide to hold their first Purge (I’ll take “Economically Disadvantaged Area Filled With People Of Color” for 500, Alex), they go for the tip of the iceberg; exploitation. Because make no mistake, As Anarchy veered from the first film’s claustrophobic small setting into the big world, First veers from any sense of social commentary to full-on exploitation flick. There’s an occasional tip of the hat to folks living in the projects and how they try to carry on during the night, but First‘s main interest is in violence for violence’s sake. And while the horror hound in me digs the carnage, it’s a hollow, shallow victory for Kayro Syrup and red food coloring.
That’s not to say there are no good bits in here. As “head survivors” Dimitri and Nya, Y’lan Noel and Lex Scott Davis are engaging as hell, lifting up the paint-by-numbers story cliches with their excellent performances. Noel’s Dimitri is a drug kingpin with the requisite heart-of-gold, but Noel is able to balance menace with concern for those around him. And as the grass-roots granola gal of her projects, Davis’ Nya spouts a whole lot of stock “we’re better than this” and “keep up the good fight” dialogue. But she’s able to shine it up and make her lines more compelling than they have any business being.
The rest of the cast? Well, there’s The Brother Who Doesn’t Listen, The Psycho Dude, The CRAAAAAAAZEEE Black Lady, The Token Latina And Her Daughter, The Kingpin’s Gang, and of course The Comic Relief Dudes. Yeah, I’m disappointed too. Especially since they had the likes of Luna Lauren Velez (Dexter), Steve Harris (The Practice), and Mugga (Orange is the New Black) in the cast. With a cast full of talent and a story idea full of possibilities, it’s a pity that the end product was such a washout.
Okay, so I’m putting my intense disappointment into this movie, and perhaps that’s not 100% fair. For fans of the series, you’ll get the usual bread and circus, though things don’t really amp up ’til the third act. But the literal black-and-white violence isn’t cathartic, it’s distasteful. Is there a real problem with race relations in the our country? OF COURSE THERE IS. But trotting out mercenaries dressed as Nazis and KKK members who roar into Staten Island in order to kill disadvantaged people of color? It’s icky, and gives me the kind of ooky feeling I got when I first saw Scarface. That feeling that while the message of the film may be “this is horrible”, there’ll be a whole lot of jackasses who’ll think “niiiiiiice”.
That the group of survivors goes into full Die Hard mode at the film’s climax isn’t in question. (At least not if this ain’t your first horror rodeo.) And seeing Y’lan Noel channel his inner Bruce Snipes (or is that Wesley Willis?) is a treat for any fan of the bang-bang genre. However, instead of a coherent story, First feels like a cut-and-paste job that pieces together a whole lot of better films. Look – there’s The Raid: Redemption! Oh – here comes some Tarrantino Unchained shit! Woohoo! The plot feels like writer James DeMonaco phoned it in, so he could focus on the upcoming The Purge TV series. Because yeah baby, that’s coming. In fact, with the
commercial end credits bit spreading the word about the series, First feels like an overlong ad for a coming series instead of a solid story on its own.
So make fun of our current administration all you want (I sure do), but throwaway lines referencing the political climate of the day don’t take the place of a hard hitting message that weaves its way seamlessly through the narrative. Am I asking too much? Maybe. Or maybe First simply gave me too much time to think, instead of pulling me into the story it tried to create.