PLOT A newly installed government launches a ghastly social experiment.
CAST Y'lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Marisa Tomei
RATED R (strong violence)
BOTTOM LINE The franchise is starting to flag, with too much pointed commentary and not enough inventive action.
The “Purge” franchise, in which citizens of a future America are permitted to kill each other on a special night each year, began as a white-fright, home-invasion thriller (with Ethan Hawke as a suburbanite protecting his family), but soon began using multicultural casts to convey populist messages about our nation’s underclasses. This shrewd transformation capitalized on two conflicting but connected trends: A seeming rise in overt racism and a successful push for diversity on screens of all sizes.
Movie No. 4, “The First Purge,” goes back to the beginning of the story, which is to say the present day. An authoritarian party, The New Founding Fathers of America, has risen to power on a chilling platform: “The American dream is dead.” Reviving it, apparently, requires the Purge, which begins as a controlled experiment on Staten Island (series creator James DeMonaco grew up there). Folks are paid $5,000 to stay and even more to “participate,” as lab-coated staffers delicately put it. Volunteers receive creepy, light-up contact lenses that transmit their high-jinks to Purge architects Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh) and Dr. Updale (a brief Marisa Tomei).
Those who stay are played by a nearly all-black cast. They include Nya (Lex Scott Davis), a community activist; her younger brother, Isaiah (Joivan Wade); and a local drug dealer, Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), who becomes the film’s unlikely hero. Initially, Dmitri is just protecting his product, but when Sabian sends mercenaries into poor neighborhoods to foment violence, Dmitri realizes all of Staten Island could burn to the ground.
This franchise has never been what you’d call subtle, but “The First Purge” stands out for its sledgehammer commentary. Aryan-looking militants shoot up a black church; cops bear down on an unarmed black man in an empty baseball stadium. Van Jones, the CNN commentator who famously called Trump's presidential victory a “whitelash,” appears as himself, but his presence only reminds us of dreary, real-world politics. Ditto for a broad swipe at the National Rifle Association — said to be financially supporting the Purge — which comes across as sour commentary, not smart satire.
Written by DeMonaco and functionally directed by newcomer Gerard McMurray, “The First Purge” provides a few decent jolts and passable action sequences, but it doesn’t feel as clever or canny as past installments. Still, the franchise isn’t done: The closing credits, set to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” include an advertisement for USA Network’s “The Purge” series, due in September.