War is different now. The lines between “battlefield” and “home front” have shrunk down exponentially, and “going to war” doesn’t always mean, well, actually having to go somewhere. Set during the decades-long “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, Yann Demange’s brutal and ambitious ’71 distills war down to a microcosmic and very personal level, effectively illuminating a still-important piece of world history through one hell of a pulse-pounding adventure.
Jack O’Connell stars in the film as young British solider Gary Hook, who is unexpectedly shipped off to Belfast to help combat and quell rising tensions from the Irish nationalists and republicans, regular people who have started taking their battles quite literally to the streets. Gary doesn’t really have much of a dog in this particular fight, but he also doesn’t a choice when his unit is deployed across the Irish Sea. Gary doesn’t appear to have many options, and we learn early on that he’s got a little brother who clearly loves him and counts on him (before Gary ships out, the two toss the ball around together before Gary takes the kiddo back to, what we can only assume, is a home for boys he used to live in, as well). At the mercy of his superiors and the system they’re all trapped inside, Gary goes to Belfast. It’s not so great there.
By 1971, “The Troubles” were steadily creeping up on their most dangerous years, and it’s obvious that Gary and his unit are about to confront something that no amount of training could prepare them for. Sent out early to patrol some rowdy neighborhoods, the British boys are greeted by residential areas that look, well, exactly like battlefields. Blown out and blown up, flaming vehicles litter the streets, missing street signs keep them from ever fully grasping their locations and unhappy locals boldly confront them and attempt to push them out. The Troubles are often described as a long-running “conflict,” but ’71 makes it plain – this was a war, one that took place on streets and in pubs and homes and ensnared enlisted men right alongside women and children.
Gary and his company’s “routine” trip to a mostly Catholic neighborhood goes almost immediately wrong, when an enraged and unhinged group of locals manage to get Gary and his best pal away from the group – they’re chasing after a kid, a kid, who has taken off with one of their guns after a melee breaks out amongst the crowd of residents and soldiers – and mercilessly gun down Gary’s companion as he struggles alongside him. The effects are quick and unflinching: confusion, fear and a company on the run, and it’s not immediately clear to anyone (well, except Gary) what’s happened until it’s happened.
Gary has been left behind enemy lines.
Demange doesn’t rely on traditional plot points to tell his story (sorry, Behind Enemy Lines), and the possibility of Gary’s rescue by his (initially unaware) unit is never dangled as some great pie-in-the-sky narrative movement. Instead, Gary’s salvation becomes entirely dependent on his ability to fit in amongst the locals and, when that proves to be believably difficult, in finding the right people to beg for mercy. As Gary moves through residential Belfast over the course of one (obviously really bad) night, his story weaves in with that of a group of double agents who are dealing with their own improbable survival rates and loyalties that shift so quickly that it’s nearly impossible to keep up with all the double- and triple-crossing.
O’Connell’s wild-eyed performance anchors the feature, and the rising star (we’ll next see him in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, another historical action film that seems poised to catapult him into the upper echelon of actors to watch) is consistently engaging and entertaining to watch. The film is Gary’s story, and O’Connell embodies the character with uncanny ease. The film itself is nearly impossible to turn away from, but O’Connell’s steady and stellar work set it a cut above.
Raw, fast, unsettling and endlessly unnerving, ’71 an adrenaline high of a movie, the kind that relentlessly piles on pulse-pounding action that feels both visceral and very, very real. Demange and screenwriter Gregory Burke are obviously uninterested in making expected choices, and the feature manages to cleverly fold in giant, seat-jumping scares with believable narrative movements that keep it pushing ever-forward. Once the film wraps up its streamlined 99-minute runtime, it will likely take audiences an additional hour and a half to lower their pulse.
The Upside: Jack O’Connell’s star-making performance, relentlessly exciting and involving, pulse-pounding action.
The Downside: Supporting characters are underdeveloped, small patches in the second act drag.
On the Side: Traditionally speaking, “The Troubles” are believed to have lasted between 1968 and 1988 (even the dates are kind of fraught in regards to the conflict), though the early and mid-seventies are believed to have been the most violent time period (1972 saw the greatest loss of life throughout the entire two-decade conflict).
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