It's kind of amazing how close the "Purge" movies come to being biting satires of modern American culture. All four films have some extremely powerful moments that elevate them into the rarified air of intelligent commentary, but also seem content to wallow in the excess of schlock and mid-'80s action movies. Sometimes it's impossible to tell whether you're watching a "Purge" movie or "The Warriors."
"The First Purge" is a prequel to the three films that have come before, showing how the country allowed something like the Purge to become law. Basically, one night a year, all crime is legal, allowing anyone to rape, murder and steal with no repercussions the following day. While "The First Purge" doesn't necessarily do a good job making the concept believable, it does paint a powerful picture of what would happen if a new political party run by corrupt and hypocritical white dudes went absolutely batshit in their attempts to get rid of minorities and the poor.
This terrifying political party is called The New Founding Fathers of America, and their grand and evil experiment is in its trial phase. In the other "Purge" movies, the Purge is nationwide, but we're in prequel territory here, so the trial run is set to take place on Staten Island. Since that island is filled with the marginalized and minorities, it's easy to see what the evil plan of the NFFA is and why they chose that locale.
Politically, it's one hell of a timely movie, but the franchise has shifted from the numbing horror of the original to an action series made up of characters firing automatic weapons at each other across deserted and burning streets. All of the heroes in the film are brown or black and all of the villains are rich and white, so it's easy to root for the good guys, but a lot of the subtext and commentary is lost as the script and direction seem content with staging another impressive action scene.
The main hero of the movie is a drug kingpin named Dmitri (played by a fantastic Y'Lan Noel) who fights back against the killer purgers and the corrupt NFFA who are out to exterminate him. Dmitri reminded me of Wesley Snipes' character Nino Brown from "New Jack City," complete with badass one-liners and martial arts skills. Y'Lan Noel would also make an awesome "Blade," so I guess they have that in common.
Some of the killers are dressed in KKK robes, which makes the violence toward them so damn satisfying. Drug dealers versus the Klan seems like the setup for the greatest movie ever made, but "The First Purge" really just wants to entertain more than set the audience up with moral quandaries to work out.
"The First Purge" is also basically a theatrical pilot for a TV show which launches Sept. 4, focused on how the NFFA took control of the government and ratified the 28th Amendment. Normally, this would seem like a staggeringly cynical bit of synergistic cross-promotion, but... I dunno. Series creator James DeMonaco has built a world where lots of different stories about a diverse group of heroes and villains can be told, so as long as he's down to tell stories set in this universe, I'll be there to watch in depressed horror.