Review: On Staten Island, ‘The First Purge’ Rages

Posted July 3, 2018 11:27 p.m. EDT

Having bypassed the previous three “Purge” movies — in which, once a year, Americans are free to murder, rape and pillage — I came to their prequel, “The First Purge,” with virgin eyes and zero expectations. But even the most ardent fan could find its bluntness uncomfortably timely: In our build-that-wall moment, a story about a government-sponsored plan to cull poor minorities feels less like political satire than current-affairs commentary.

As does the vision of societal collapse and carnage propagated by the New Founding Fathers of America party, which prompts a well-meaning psychologist (Marisa Tomei) to design an “experiment” that allows citizens 12 hours of punishment-free venting. Staten Island is chosen as the location, and residents are offered cash to remain and participate. Creepy contact lenses will record their misdeeds, whose depravity will ensure the experiment’s continuation.

But what if you held a massacre and hardly anyone came? That’s the heartening question posed by James DeMonaco’s script, which — aside from one battle-scarred freak named Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) — presents residents who’d initially rather party than rampage. Imported mercenaries are required to show them how it’s done.

Directed by Gerard McMurray (who lived through the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina), the film is committed to the power of resistance, personified by a band of locals who fight for their community. Juxtaposing a control bunker, where mainly white operatives observe, with a neighborhood church where overwhelmingly black and Latino residents huddle in fear, the movie insists that the sidelines are not an option. In the end, even Skeletor will learn where his true loyalties lie.

“The First Purge”

Rated R. Imagine the myriad bloody ways in which humans can destroy one another, and you’re close enough. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes.