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"THE FIRST PURGE"
(2018) (Y'lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Action: In a dystopian America, the government experiments with a 12-hour period on Staten Island where residents can commit any crime they want with no fear of reprisal, but the real reason for "The Purge" is quite sinister.
PLOT:
In a dystopian America, the government is set to experiment with a 12-hour period on Staten Island where residents can commit any crime they want with no fear of reprisal. Dubbed "The Purge," it is the brainchild of Dr. Updale (MARISA TOMEI) and facilitated by the President's Chief of Staff, Arlo Sabian (PATCH DARRAGH). The plan is to bribe the poor and disenfranchised to remain in the borough and provide them with even more financial incentive to murder, steal, loot, and commit other crimes.

On the ground, there are the good residents of Staten Island who opt to stay and collect the one-time $5,000 bonus. They just want to hunker down and survive the night. They include Nya (LEX SCOTT DAVIS), a community activist who previously turned away from a life of crime; Dolores (MUGGA), her sassy neighbor who thinks the world is going mad; and the kind-hearted Luisa (LUNA LAUREN VALEZ) and her daughter, Selina (KRISTEN SOLIS). They all hole up in a local church that they hope will be spared the mayhem.

Those who seek to use the night to further their violent ambitions include Isaiah (JOIVAN WADE), Nya's younger brother who wants revenge on the local hoodlum who cut him with a knife; Skeletor (ROTIMI PAUL), the frightening thug who sliced Isaiah and wants to become a murderous legend of the first Purge; and Capital A (CHRISTIAN ROBINSON), a Staten Island gangster eager to usurp his rival. That rival is Dmitri (Y'LAN NOEL), Staten Island's biggest drug dealer who stays to protect his empire and ends up fighting for his life when the government becomes disappointed with the initial few hours of the Purge and commissions cold-blooded mercenaries to further along the desired violent statistics.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
In a few years time -- heck, in a few weeks time -- my guess is "The First Purge" won't be remembered much as a movie event. It's a disposable, dystopian action thriller, the fourth in its series, that has socio-political ambitions and yearns to be important. But it's really just interested in giving us as many scenes as possible of creepy dudes in masks jumping from out of camera frame, basically yelling "Boo!" and then committing heinous crimes. It never gets tired of showing us that.

But what "The First Purge" may be remembered for in a year or two years' time is the discovery of some great young talent who could go on to bigger, better films. Now, that Marvel movies and "Star Wars" films and other franchises are getting more diverse, they are on the hunt for top talent. And "The First Purge" has at least three performers who I think can be major and exciting contributors to bigger, better films coming up. This experience to me was akin to watching the first season of "The Wire" and marveling at previously under-seen talents like Idris Elba, Dominic West, and Michael K. Williams.

The first is Y'Lan Noel, this sequel's action lead. He initially reminded me of an actor who I wished had broken through about a decade ago, but never quite did -- Eamonn Walker of "Oz." Noel plays the clichéd drug dealer with a secret heart of gold here, but he delivers such a strong and commanding performance that you forgive the stock writing and conception of the character. When it comes down that his community and people and former girlfriend are threatened here, he really goes into action!

The second is Lex Scott Davis as said girlfriend, Nya. I just saw her in "SuperFly" and wasn't impressed. Here, though, she is alternately fierce, vulnerable, smart, and savvy and holds the movie when the focus is on her and her character's survival while also trying to keep her people safe amidst a night of uncontrolled violence and mayhem,

The third is an actor I've never seen before, Rotimi Paul. He plays a homicidal street hood named Skeletor, and he is absolutely freakin' scary! He was feared in his neighborhood before. But given 12 hours to kill, maim, and threaten without fear of arrest or punishment, he goes for the grand prize of Purgers. He WANTS to be the baddest man of the night, and he is so clearly deranged that you fear even for the worst of the criminals prowling the streets let alone Nya's gang-banger wannabe little brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade).

I so wish they were in a better flick than "The First Purge," but I will say they make the whole thing watchable in its ugly, garish, B-movie exploitation. The film is a prequel to the three previous "Purge" flicks showing how Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei, cashin' that paycheck) came up with the experiment to have all violent crime legal for one 12-hour evening to expel all bad emotions and lower the crime rate for the rest of the year. But it's really just a cynical exercise for the federal government to thin the herd and wage war on poor people, who have been paid $5,000 each to remain on the test site that is Staten Island, N.Y., for the one night.

When the violence doesn't kick in to an alarming degree in the first few hours, the President's soulless Chief of State, Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh), activates hordes of mercenaries to descend on the borough and ratchet up the bloodshed. The Staten Island drug dealers led by Noel's Dmitri take it personally and begin shooting back.

When the film centers on its action and the survival of its leads, that's when it is at its best. When it tries to be an Important Movie, the social commentary is ham-fisted and underdeveloped. We're supposed to believe that the mercenaries are a mix of colluding Russians, white supremacists, some possibly disgruntled cops, and general cutthroats from all over. But the main ones look like they were plucked from 1942 Berlin. One female character gets grabbed in the you-know-where. And the third party that has seized control of American politics in this dystopian, alternate near-present is funded by the NRA it's said early on. Both the characters and the audience are hammered over the head in this one.

But the politics here are so clumsy, that only the most easily outraged viewers will be turned off. For the most part, I smirked and scoffed my way through it while enjoying the performances. I hope this is the last "Purge" film, but the first of many better movies to come for Noel, Davis, and Paul. They earn this one a barely passing grade of 5 out of 10. (T. Durgin)




Reviewed May 10, 2017 / Posted May 12, 2017


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