First off – credit is due to writer James DeMonaco, who’s scripted all four Purge films and directed the first three, for latching on to current American nightmares and delivering the requisite horror franchise for the Age of Trump. It’s not his fault that The Purge Election Year (2016) now seems less dystopian than reality – it showed the cheating Trump type candidate eventually losing to the liberal woman – and he genuinely comes up with a different take on the cartoon premise (a letting-off-steam day when all crime is legal) in each entry. There are still avenues to explore – we’ve yet to see a Purge film where folks take advantage of the loophole to get away with a complicated heist or flout laws against non-violent crime … where’s the rush of folk trying to file their tax returns on Purge day? Or get round injunctions against publishing scandal in the special Purge editions of the newspapers? Here, in a prequel dramatising the first experimental purge, a background couple have sex in public (‘that’s illegal too’) and there’s a huge presumably illegal street party in the early stages … but it’s mostly the usual spree-killing and social/ethnic cleansing.
Perhaps influenced by the huge commercial hit of Get Out – a film it would be hard to turn into a franchise, though I bet someone is pondering ways of achieving it – Blumhouse retool this entry as a blaxploitation film. The white guy protagonists of the earlier Purges (Ethan Hawke, Frank Grillo) are ditched in favour of a predominantly black cast, and the director is African-American Gerard McMurray (Burning Sands). The set-up is that the New Founding Fathers Party, backed significantly by the NRA, have risen to power and the Purge, a social experiment proposed by ditzy anthropologist Dr Updale (Marisa Tomei), gets its dry run on Staten Island (DeMonaco’s home turf) … on the assumption that the mostly poor, mostly black locals will accept a five thousand dollar bribe to stay in the killing zone but not be alive to collect in the morning. When only a few psychos – notably, grinning, seething Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), who actually names the Purge – act as planned, NFFP creepo Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh) deploys death squads of (overwhelmingly white) mercs to rack up the body count. A cross-section of Staten Islanders – buff gang leader Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), his straight-living ex Nya (Lex Scott Davis), her vacillating younger brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade), comedy best friend Dolores (Mugga), token innocent mother and daughter Luisa (luna Lauren Velez) and Selina (Kristen Solis) – are caught up in the carnage and fight back.
DeMonaco works in a few references to fill out his imagined alternate America – showing the origins of conventions like the masks worn by the most violent Purgers (mostly so they look cool on the posters) – and rams home the message that this isn’t about an anarchic rebellion but a systematic assault on the underclass. In one vignette, a cadre of helemted cops beat a lone black man on a football field – is this a reference to Rodney King? Take a knee? Black Lives Matter? All of the above? In any case, like so much, it’s a throwaway. A sleaze who sets a trap for Nya gets kicked in the face and called a pussy-grabber, but that’s not a thread that gets picked up either. And, despite a tiny sub-plot about the gangs being supplied with firepower from outside, neither is there much about US gun culture, which also seems to be a major subtext of the series. The cast are mostly solid, but their characterisations are off the shelf, with A to B arcs that barely register between action scenes that too often get muddled or mixed up to develop the sort of early John Carpenter vibe the film seems to be going for. By scaling down the Purge to an island, the film underlines similarities to the premise of Battle Royale even as it riffs a little on Escape From New York. Overall, this just about gets by on good intentions and flashes of inspiration – but it’s probably the weakest of the franchise so far, suggesting that future installments – a Purge TV series is in the works – will have to up the game.
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