Movie review: Purgers strike back in 'The First Purge'

Prequel goes back in time to explain how 'The Purge' came to be

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

In 2013, audiences were introduced to a world where the government has legalized all crime for one annual night known as "The Purge." Any inquisitive parties who wondered what kind of legislation could possibly lead to that scenario have their burning questions answered in "The First Purge," a sufficiently satisfying prequel that shows how the Purge came to be. 

Joivan Wade (left) and Lex Scott Davis (right) in "The First Purge."

The "Purge" movies -- this is the fourth, and the best since the original — present a cracked lens vision of America that successfully taps into our bubbling undercurrent of rage. Yes, they're ridiculous, but the legalized crime premise presents an intriguing "what if?" scenario that seems less far fetched the farther we spiral off our axis. (Tellingly, each entry in the franchise has been more successful than the last, bucking the trend for sequels, and a "Purge" TV series is coming to USA Network in the fall.)

First up there's "The First Purge," which unfolds prior to the events of the first "Purge." Facing a housing crisis, rampant unemployment and a collapsing economy, the New Founding Fathers of America — a radical third party alternative to the Republicans and Democrats — decides to stage an "experiment," legalizing all crime for one night in one location, New York's Staten Island. Participants are paid $5,000 each for their participation in this "societal catharsis," with compensation increasing depending on their level of engagement. 

In the hours leading up to the inaugural event, Nya (Lex Scott Davis), a neighborhood activist, is looking to keep her little brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) safe. She doesn't know he's working for neighborhood drug dealer and crime boss Dmitri (Y'lan Noel), and when he's attacked by local junkie Skeletor (a terrifying Rotimi Paul), Isaiah looks to enact his revenge on the one night he can be absolved of his crime.

Meanwhile, over at Purge headquarters, Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei) is ready to analyze results from the event in real time. When the majority of people use the night to party rather than commit rampant acts of violence, the NFFA's chief of staff, Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh) rigs the game by sending in roving gangs of mercenaries to up the chaos, blasting the footage across the nation's airwaves to stoke TV viewers' blood lust. But Dmitri and his crew, joining up with Nya, set out to take back their streets rather than be pawns in the government's game. 

Director Gerard McMurray ("Burning Sands") stages an effective game of cat and mouse and ramps up to an effective climax. Writer James DeMonaco, who has authored all of the "Purge" movies, wisely flips the conflict from the people to the corrupt government officials, and uses racial tensions — the government targets a low-income black neighborhood, and in one sequence, a black character chokes out a white character in a blackface mask — to put the film in a modern day Black Lives Matter context. Which is not to say "The First Purge" unfolds in our current version of America. But its world is recognizable, perhaps more than we'd like to admit.

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'The First Purge'


Rated R: for strong disturbing violence throughout, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use

Running time: 112 minutes