The action-horror films set within James DeMonaco's Purge universe have endured the challenges of powering forward with an outlandish, yet compelling idea against the misgivings of its target audience. Numerous shortcomings led to the unsatisfying, seemingly oblivious execution of the concept with the first, Ethan Hawke-starring The Purge, in which the chaos of a lawless environment -- where illegal activity, including murder, is permitted for 12 hours -- gets confined between the walls of a house-invasion thriller. The aptly-titled Anarchy corrects that error, allowing the gunfire and terror to sprawl across an urban landscape while themes of class warfare and justified vengeance take hold. Election Year grows exaggerated and sloppy with its messages while setting its sights on political assassinations, but still knows how to generate unpredictable dread once those sirens kick into gear. Now, there's The First Purge, and despite this being a prequel, it acts as an escalation of what prior entries have set out to accomplish, blowing up the franchise's political intentions and submitting dubious cautionary explanations to how America devolved into its purge state.
In the midst of economic and social turmoil, a new political party ascended to power in the good ole' US of A: the New Founding Fathers of America, or NFFA, a far-right extremist group hinged on totalitarian, police-state authority and abundant religious undertones. The First Purge doesn't really tell the story of their ascent, though, scanning over it to get to the point where the regime has decided to implement an "experiment": to make the boundaries of Staten Island in New York devoid of laws and repercussions -- even if it involves killing another person -- for a period of 12 hours, so that people can release their aggressive tendencies without repercussions. Since this hasn't been established as law yet, and since it only covers an isolated area where people could simply escape from, the NFFA has offered monetary incentives to both those electing to stay and those who wish to participate in the purging itself. Like the other entries, The First Purge follows separate groups of people as they navigate the inaugural "purge" and its moral quandries.
Based on how the previous films worked, it seems as if James DeMonaco understood that any details he provided about how the NFFA ascended to power would be less convincing than the ones in the heads of his audience, so to this point he's mostly left those bits of world-building to the imagination. The First Purge only delves into that halfway, dedicating its energy toward how the regime executed this chosen solution for the first time and avoiding much explanation of the bureaucratic, legal, and humanitarian issues involved with getting this started up on Staten Island, no less. DeMonaco gets too close to "reality" for comfort, though, as the progression of events leading to this first experiment gets one's mental gears turning to figure out how this semi-realistic state of America -- one coping with record poverty and unemployment -- could logically transition into this breed of elevated-reality, villainous despotism. By evading certain elements and revealing specifics about others, this prequel's coverage of "historical" events in DeMonaco's universe becomes expectedly wishy-washy and unthorough.
The politics involved with The First Purge are an unpleasant battlezone, immediately and bluntly tapping into the prior films' concentration on class structure, poverty, and the anger that stems from those. DeMonaco and Fruitvale Station director Gerard McMurray go for the throat with the film's themes, to such a degree that it makes even Election Year seem (comparatively) restrained in what it sets out to do. Racial overtones twist together with reflections on modern-day concerns about how escalated violence and prejudice have become tolerated, but there's little nuance in how those points are handled -- or in who they're targeting -- and a discernible agenda drives everything forward while haphazardly coupling with the film's admissions about how people were paid to engage in the experiment. The commentary comes in broad strokes, and it forms into a daring, well-intended, yet divisive and lopsided takedown of what real-world forces could set "the purge" in motion.
The First Purge still arrives at that feeling of anticipation once the red warning screen pops up on televisions and that deep, billowing siren starts to go off, triggering the end of civility and the beginning of unpredictable mayhem. There's an added layer of expectation in this prequel, though, involving the uncertainty of how quickly the lawlessness will escalate and how profound the bloodshed will be in this trial run. That should add a more human angle to how the dangers progress throughout the purge, yet the interventions of the NFFA -- including countless surveillance drones with guns mounted on em -- and a drug lord's mindless threat management on that night produces forced shock-value theatrics, which undercut the relative authenticity of everything that's going on. Naturally, what happens on the streets of Staten Island isn't as gory or shocking as the carnage in the previous films where the annual purge has become a custom, but pointy-hooded mobs cruising in trucks and a scarred-up drug addict sporting claws made of syringes do capture a similar amount of bedlam.
A lot of confidence gets placed in the power of the messages being communicated in The First Purge, in hopes that the significance of what's being expressed will convey enough about the ugliness of authority figures -- and racial division -- to create its own unique brand of terror that'll carry it until the credits roll. As a prequel to over a decade (maybe two?) of annual purges, however, these overtures of heroism and resistance are diminished when considering what's to come in the dystopian future that DeMonaco's previous installments have already brought to the screen, which doesn't do any favors to the transformation of a well-known, murderous drug dealer into an almost John McClane-esque savior. Y'Lan Noel is a badass as the dealer, Dmitri, and his soldierly poise as he grabs assault weapons and enters towers to defend the innocent gets one's juices flowing in a grindhouse-action sort of way, but he's fighting against more than an army of militarized purgers at this point: his heroic turn is also fighting against numerous lapses in logic that kept him in a position to become Staten Island's knight in shining armor. After the dust settles around him, this depiction of The First Purge has done more harm to the setting than it helped.
Video and Audio:
Because of the timetables inherent in the plots, all the films in the Purge series tend to be visual very dark due to the sirens going off just before sundown, allowing for a few sun-covered scenes to frontload the streetlights and neon glowing of urban environments as they take over. Daytime shots almost always benefit more from high-definition boosts than the majority nighttime sequences, so it's not a surprise that the photography during protests and in the sterile pay-to-participate interview rooms look great through Universal's 2.39:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer, elevating details found in facial hair, technology wires, and the fabric of fake flowers while the brightness accentuates the photography's depth. The aesthetic interest comes at night, though, and that's where the digital transfer makes certain to excel: the vividness of blacklight responsiveness and neon lights are captivating, the heavy shadows are eerie but retain all elements within, and the fine details found on skin surfaces, caked blood, flickers of fire and the franchise's signature usage of masks are reputably strong. Excluding some noisiness in and around orange streetlights and heaviness of shadows here and there, The First Purge is a sight on Blu-ray.
Anarchy is loud, so it's also no big revelation that The First Purge is also an aggressive sonic affair through its 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Yet, even though this is the first instance of the purge happening, that doesn't mean it somehow possesses less intensity than its predecessors: in fact, due to the presence of gun-mounted drones, a penchant for explosions, and more hand-to-hand combat than other iterations, one could argue that this might be the most aggressive sound presentation of the lot. Everything sounds great, too, with gunshots having high-end and midrange heft throughout, while said explosions have plenty of lower-end bombast as the impact area spreads out. The close-quartered action sequences tend to be the most interesting, though, as the slicing of blades and the contact of hand-to-hand combat possess an absorbing amount of tightness and surround-channel responsiveness. The back channels are carefully, yet generously employed to engage the atmospheric sounds of chaos, and dialogue fluctuates from tolerably articulated to extremely crisp where needed. An explosive high-definition track.
Beyond a Deleted Scene (1:47, 16x9 HD) -- either an alternate death scene for one of the bad guys or an incredibly wisely-removed extension of his presence -- there's a trio of featurettes scan over the creation of the film: A Radical Experiment (4:57, 16x9 HD) blends interview chats about the concept itself and descriptions of the characters inside the story; Bringing the Chaos (1:24, 16x9 HD) very briefly touches on the scope of the action and the willingness of the actors to get involved; and The Masks of The First Purge (1:22, 16x9 HD) covers the political and historical facets of the masks worn in the film. Total, it's less than ten minutes of press-kit caliber coverage of creating the prequel.
A standard DVD Copy and a Digital Copy slip have also been included.
While I wouldn't classify myself as a fan of the Purge series -- Anarchy would be the only one that I'll want to revisit in the future -- there's something inherently compelling about the concept established by James DeMonaco that makes even hesitant viewers intrigued by how this 12-hour lawless "holiday" could come to be. The First Purge, written by DeMonaco and directed by Gerard McMurray, attempts to shine a light on part of that curiosity, depicting how a right-wing extremist political party started it as an "experiment" on Staten Island and how the forces-that-be engineered it to be a success for them, anyway. This has always been a politically-driven franchise, but the direction taken by this one goes much too heavy-handed with its commentary, and that focus on the messages must've distracted from their grasp on the logistics and implications of the evening's developments. Most importantly, despite being sufficiently violent, it's not an enjoyable burst of action-horror chaos, either, recapturing some of the unsettling atmosphere but possessing far less actual terror as characters fight for survival across the island. Universal's Blu-ray looks and sounds terrific, so at least a Rental will have that going for it.