Despatched to Belfast with his regiment, fresh-trained grunt Gary Hook (O’Connell) is stranded on a hostile estate when his patrol goes badly wrong. Can he make it back to the barracks before being found by the IRA?
This is a tribal situation the British Army are portrayed as blundering into, with elements both nefarious and naive. While a unit of undercover soldiers (lead by Sean Harris) are clearly up to some Bad Shit, the regular army is dodging it on the street — literally, as locals fling faeces at the unwelcome “Brits”. More bewildered than he is belligerent, Jack O’Connell’s young private is our avatar, left behind thanks to the panic of his inexperienced commanding officer (Sam Reid).
Wounded and scared and largely silent, O’Connell struggles through the streets in a performance that’s wonderfully watchable. From Eden Lake to Starred Up, we know he can ‘do’ violence, but here he holds the screen with no swagger — just a simple desire to survive. As a knife-wielding hero, he’s less like Sylvester Stallone in Rambo than he is Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween. The John Carpenter touches extend to David Holmes’ judiciously used score, plus the sense ’71 is, like Assault On Precinct 13, an urban Western. This points to an element some might find uncomfortable: ’71 is, in some ways, a popcorn thriller about a community in tragedy. But however exciting the set-pieces, the film retains its integrity. The violence is seen, shockingly, and felt — from bomb to blade. Demange’s direction puts you right there and, while Burke’s script isn’t given to political grandstanding, its glancing blows have a lasting impact. ’71 is one of the best films of ’14.
The villainy is, perhaps unavoidably, somewhat signposted, but this is a tense, gripping thriller that combines real-world relevance with high-concept entertainment. In a superb ensemble, O’Connell is outstanding.
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