Director: Yann Demange
Writer: Gregory Burke
Stars: Jack O’Connell, Sean Harris, Sam Reid, Paul Anderson
Release date: October 10th, 2014
Distributors: StudioCanal, Roadside Attractions
Running time: 99 minutes
Best part: Jack O’Connell.
Worst part: The generic villains.
Each cinema industry has its share of touchy topics used to puzzle history buffs, attract film buffs, and educate mass audiences. These subjects – marked by historical events and/or societal, cultural, political, and economic issues – make for haunting stories. Vying for Oscar contention, Hollywood’s offerings depict shocking accounts of harrowing stories. Utilising their resources, other countries – no matter which side of the western/eastern hemisphere their on – seek to primarily inform viewers.
Surprisingly, groundbreaking British feature ’71, despite the controversial road taken, never focuses specifically on its subject. Despite the inconceivable issues effecting Northern Ireland, the movie side-steps anything remotely distressing or subjective. Overlooking the anger, tyranny, and sadness, the movie instead tackles action-thriller tropes to tell a simple yet effective tale. This 1971-set feature, presenting itself like prime film-festival material, starts off like most military dramas. Training for warfare, British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) believes he can help change war-torn Northern Ireland. Shifting comfortably between tests, the heroic grunt is chosen for a dangerous and life-altering mission. The soldier follows orders and delivers impressive results without breaking a sweat. Beyond this, Hook continually visits his former children’s home to see his younger brother – and remaining loved one – Derren (Henry Verity). One day, as his base is transported to Belfast, the conflict reaches its most vicious and distressing point yet. Arriving the night before, the unit’s optimistic leader, Lt. Armitage (Sam Reid), expects absolute perfection from his fresh-faced recruits. However, as the unit descends upon Falls Road, their inclusion is met with urine-and-faeces-filled balloons and bags thrown by local youths. Conducting house-by-house incursions, the unit is met with angry residents and hostile rioters.
Of course, nothing goes according to plan. As the riot reaches breaking point, Hook and another soldier, Thommo (Jack Lowden), become from the group and left for dead during the retreat. From the first action sequence onwards, ’71, set one year before Bloody Sunday, depicts a vacuous war zone between several motivated, honour-starved factions. Like Hook, the narrative runs rampant through action clichés, visual metaphors, and tough characters. Unlike most IRA/Troubles movies, designed to discuss specific events in detail (Bloody Sunday, Hidden Agenda), the movie throws the geo-political/ethno-nationalist conflict into the background. Some may see ’71 as a gross misjudgment. Across the kinetic 99-minute run-time, whilst dodging the “too soon” argument, we follow our able-bodied lead throughout the worst day of his life. At first, he’s a confident soldier embracing the campaign’s many challenges. Lacking political or social viewpoints, the movie rests squarely on Hook’s shoulders. Focusing on rebellious children and adolescent soldiers, this action-thriller crafts a refreshing and prescient take on its resonant subject matter. Presenting hidden truths and notable viewpoints, ’71 objectively depicts each relevant faction. Delivering vital information through exposition, it depicts the Catholic Nationalists, Protestant Loyalists, Irish Republican Army, Military Reaction Force, and Royal Ulster Constabulary carefully and considerately.
“Posh c*nts telling thick c*unts to kill poor c*nts.” (Eamon (Richard Dormer), ’71)
Aiming for ‘grey’, its realistic take depicts eery streets lit by torched cars and molotov cocktails. Stepping around bad blood and cruel motivations, ’71 becomes a survival-action flick similar to The Raid: Redemption, Assault on Precinct 13, and Die Hard. Unlike most copy-cats, it embraces each trope whilst elevating the tempo. Avoiding Behind Enemy Lines‘ jingoistic aftertaste, it balances style and substance succinctly. TV director Yann Demange handles his first feature’s £5 million budget effectively. Experimenting with unique camera, lighting, and sound techniques, his style fits the narrative like a uniform. Utilising shaky-cam and quick cuts, the chase sequences ratchet up the tension. As our factions track Hook down, Yemange heightens the grit and stakes. After locals Brigid (Charlie Murphy) and Eamon (Richard Dormer) rescue our hero, the last act turns their apartment block into a labyrinthine maze. Despite the thrills, its contrivances and implausibles spoil the fun. In addition, the over-the-top antagonists distort the narrative. However, the movie’s stellar performances outweigh the negatives. O’Connell – hitting the big-time in 2014 with this, 300: Rise of an Empire, Starred Up, and Unbroken – is revelatory as the out-of-his depth antagonist. Conveying a plethora of emotions, his performance bolsters the adrenaline-charged, man-against-the-world role. In addition, Sean Harris and Paul Anderson excel as two MRF officers teetering on the edge. Meanwhile, David Wilmot delivers several laughs as a slimy rebel leader.
Tackling this harrowing conflict with style and gusto, ’71 is a great first effort and brilliant slice of escapism. The movie – switching between war-drama, political-thriller, and hardcore action flick – is an exercise in controlled chaos. Refusing to take sides, this action-thriller never bogs itself down in Left or Right viewpoints. In fact, this modest and invigorating effort is summed up by one line: “Posh cnts telling thick cnts to kill poor c*nts”.
Verdict: A potent and intensifying action-thriller.