It can often be hard to justify the existence of prequels, as they tend to be telling the part of a story before it becomes interesting. But in the case of The First Purge, it is not the lack of plot viability that is the issue, but rather, the lack of pleasantness. That may be an odd thing to say about a franchise whose premise is an annual night of legalized lawlessness. But we know going in that any happy ending in The First Purge will be uneasy and short-lived. With all that in mind, it is not pointless, just hard to bear. It is clear-headed in its diagnosis of the problems of a world that is not that different from our own, but it does not offer reassurance that things will improve anytime soon.

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The entire Purge series has been a not-so-veiled allegory of America’s callous treatment of its minorities and lower classes. As this is the inaugural edition, here carried out in an experimental trial on Staten Island, it is easy to see the Purge for what it is: getting rid of major societal problems by killing off undesirables. Thus a cameo from Van Jones as himself or invoking a condemnation by the Pope does not read as hokey but instead it legitimately feels like how influential people with a moral compass would act in this situation. Unfortunately, The First Purge does not have the storytelling chops to match its thematic righteousness. Its characters are threadbare, and it devolves into macho action clichés that are at odds with its message.

This edition also oddly adds an “it’s all for the sake of science!” angle to its experimenting, with Marisa Tomei as the “architect” tasked with designing the scope of the Purge and predicting its effectiveness. Tomei is as good a fit as anyone for this role, but even she cannot overcome the inexplicable fact that her character does not seem to realize until halfway through the night that she has sanctioned the killing of innocents. At one point she literally asks, “What have I done?” Duds of a line like that or “I’m worried about this country” could have been avoided if this entry had just leaned more into this franchise’s unhinged style of humor. At least we do get one person informing us that her “bowels done joined the Purge, too.”

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Starring: Y’Lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Luna Lauren Velez, Marisa Tomei, Melonie Diaz, Mo McRae, Steve Harris, Chyna Lane, Patch Darragh

Director: Gerard McMurray

Running Time: 97 Minutes

Rating: R for Plenty of Purging

Release Date: July 4, 2018