NEW YORK — A love of violence for its own sake, a profoundly dishonest attempt to disguise itself as a political allegory and reverse racism characterize “The First Purge” (Universal), a despicable bit of slaughter porn.
This is the fourth film in — and origin story of — the wretched franchise that began with 2013’s “The Purge.” Set on Staten Island, it focuses on the fortunes of community activist Nya (Lex Scott Davis), her younger brother, Isaiah (Joivan Wade), and her gang leader ex-boyfriend, Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), during a night when all crimes are to be permitted in the borough as a social experiment.
Nya represents the moral compass of the movie, to the extent that it has one. Isaiah is fundamentally decent but initially anxious to avenge himself on the neighborhood loony, Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), who wantonly attacks him in an early scene. Dimitri is ripe for redemption. But their stories are just window dressing for the real agenda: impaling, dismembering and slitting the throats of the extras.
Researcher Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei), the mastermind behind the harebrained project, eventually has qualms. But all the other white characters, from stand-ins for conservative politicians to hooded Klansmen, are unredeemable villains in the demise of many of whom the audience is invited to exult.
The movie’s treatment of religion is similarly split along racial lines. The symbol of the political party backing the licensed mayhem, the New Founding Fathers of America, for instance, features a cross, as do the banners carried on the vehicles of some white supremacists as they prowl for black victims.
Nya, on the other hand, takes refuge in a church before being forced to come to Isaiah’s rescue. And the folk who huddle with her there are presented as uniformly righteous.
Director Gerard McMurray’s flick, scripted by returning screenwriter James DeMonaco, is hardly the first picture to set up a host of easy-to-hate bad guys and then mow them down to the delight of the audience. Given the racial tensions and divisive political atmosphere of the current moment, however, to portray black and brown characters as the endangered victims of marauding whites seems particularly irresponsible.
Like the screenplay’s climactic transformation of narcotics dealer Dimitri into a hero, though, these are details viewers will have to look past the waves of spurting blood on screen even to notice.
The film contains excessive gory and gruesome violence, including a sexual assault, graphic aberrant sexual activity, drug use, brief partial nudity, several profanities, a few milder oaths and pervasive rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.