Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Disturbing Images, and Language throughout
Directed by: Yann Demange
Written by: Gregory Burke
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Richard Dormer, Jack Lowden, Charlie Murphy, David Wilmot, Sean Harris, Killian Scott & Sam Reid
To be honest, I didn’t know much about The Troubles (a decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland) before going into ’71. All I knew was that there was a pretty insane span of time in which Protestants and Catholics were at each others’ throats in Ireland with bloody riots and terrorist bombings that took place throughout this time period. You can enter ’71 knowing full well about Ireland’s past or have no clue what this film is about. Neither of these viewpoints will make a bit of difference. This is one intense flick that displays great talent from director Yann Demange (who previously helmed TV’s DEAD SET) and the viewer is kept on the edge of their seat from beginning to end either way.
Gary Hook is a new British Army recruit. He’s taking care of his much younger brother and has decided to serve his country. Hook’s first assignment puts him into a scenario that’s dangerous from the get-go. He’s sent to a particularly threatening road where Protestants and Catholics live across the street from one another. What began as a simple house raid becomes something else entirely as a riot is sparked and Hook finds himself separated from his troop (who abandon him in the chaos). Stuck behind enemy lines and with a pack of angry IRA members on his tail, Hook tries to navigate his way through the streets and survive the night long enough to be rescued by his fellow soldiers.
’71 kicks off with real promise as we watch Hook going through rigorous boot camp exercises. Not much is known about this protagonist other than him having a younger brother to take care of. Jack O’Connell (who is fast becoming a rising star) sells the character of Hook through body language, a few lines and mannerisms. Though he tells his brother not to worry and that he’s technically not even leaving the country, we can clearly tell that this young soldier is uncomfortable and that turns into all-out panic once the chaos breaks loose on the streets of Belfast.
Seeing as the premise of ’71 is based around real events that took place in Ireland’s streets, this film could have easily become a cheap exploitation flick in the wrong hands. However, there’s a careful attention to detail and way of looking at the story that paints both sides on this conflict as deeply, fatally flawed. The soldiers aren’t simple heroes rushing in to save the day and the Catholics aren’t just cookie-cutter villains. We see good and bad on both sides and Hook just happens to be caught in a dangerous spot in-between them.
The way in which the chaos is presented on the screen gives the viewer more to chew on than bloody action clichés. This movie gets downright brutal and has some grisly moments (especially in the bloody riot that starts within the first 20 minutes of the film) that made me gasp. The story always maintains a level of stark realism that keeps the viewer from enjoying this as a popcorn action flick. ’71 keeps a fast pace and grimy atmosphere going as we get the sense that there’s danger lurking around every corner. Little touches throughout the film and attention to detail (I especially liked a child actor who made a strong impression in a handful of scenes) make this film into something truly special.
Aside from Jack O’Connell’s powerful performance, the rest of the cast put in stellar work as well. I especially liked Sean Harris (the baddie from ROGUE NATION) as a commanding officer who doesn’t seem to be giving Hook’s disappearance the attention that it so desperately deserves. With all of this praise being lavished on the movie, I have to say that it loses a bit of steam near the finale and nearly relies on a few well-worn clichés as a result. However, it saves itself from going down a familiar well-traveled path with a few unconventional and challenging touches to the ending that don’t play out the way you would expect them to…for a number of reasons.
’71 hit UK theaters last year and made its way to American shores earlier this year. Though the film has an insanely high Rotten Tomatoes score and people are singing its praises online, it seems to have gone by relatively unnoticed by the general public. ’71 gripped me from the first frame until the end credits and had me fully engrossed in the survival story that I was watching. This movie captures chaos and desperation on the screen in a way that few films have in recent years. I highly recommend checking out ’71. This is one of 2015’s hidden gems!