A soldier stuck alone in the midst of a raging war. Fighting for survival. Bullets, bombs and blood. It’s been done before, most recently in Behind Enemy Lines and The Raid. It’s just never been done before in such a brutally beautiful fashion. 71 is not your typical Hollywood action thriller. It’s a fresh new way of action movie making, bringing in a grim neo realist style and narrative, while still retaining that ‘holy crap that was awesome’ popcorn entertainment vibe.
71 stars Jack O’ Connell (from the incredible drama thriller Starred Up) as Gary Hook, a British soldier sent to Belfast during the infamous 1971 unrest named ‘The Troubles’, where Catholics and Protestants lunged at each others’ throats. The UK controlled North Ireland is at civil war against the independent South Ireland, with Belfast being the eye of the storm. The city is in complete violent chaos much like in Black Hawk Down, and just like in that movie Hook is separated from his unit after a mob overpowers them, and is left to his own devices.
Director Yann Demange’s camera follows Hook sprinting like a mad dog trying to hold on to dear life in the most dangerous section of Belfast, The Flats. The film is structured like one big chase scene, which makes it particularly exciting and gives the filmmakers a chance to incorporate some balls to the wall rain soaked thrills. As the crazed members of the IRA hunt him down Hook hauls from one set piece to the next, tearing up a piece of his body at each skirmish.
The atmosphere in the movie makes 71 even more suspenseful that its story is supposed to render. Tat Radcliffe’s cinematography whips out a bleak escalating nightmare rife with cynicism. The assortment of shots provides a complete view of the action and has just enough close-ups to give the characters and the setting depth and detail. On paper there is little scope to make a chase scene at night different from what we’ve seen before, but the filmmakers somehow capture visually appealing and interesting angles that catch you off guard.
The visuals are beautifully balanced by David Holmes’ minimalist electronic music that intensifies the tension to unexpected levels. It’s a straight graph of ever-increasing dread and at some points 71 even becomes a horror film. Hook’s situation feels real and that's what makes the film so potent. There isn’t a moment to breathe, when it comes to pacing few films this year have been as volatile as this one.
O’Connell really is quite fantastic in his role. He pours every ounce of emotion into Hook, and the payoff is massive. Every wound he suffers makes you cringe because he’s so darn good at transferring the energy from the screen towards you. The same goes for the rest of the cast, particularly Sean Harris as the dodgy captain of the police. Harris doesn't need to utter too many words to exude fear – you know he’s a scumbag at the onset. The politics of Ireland are not very clearly explained but your heart goes out to the young men in the film being led to join the extremist camps. Both child actors Corey McKinley and Barry Keoghan are terrific as troubled kids trying to find a way of life. The former is hilarious and it’s a shame he has only a tiny role. But even with the woes of civil wars depicted in the movie nothing is blazingly overwhelming - you can see the machination going on between the IRA, the British Army and the civilians but the focus is always on whether Hook would get the out of the hellhole. At 99 minutes 71 is cut to perfection, and it’s entertaining as hell. It’s been making the rounds at the festival circuit and it absolutely deserves a full-fledged theatrical worldwide release.
(First published in Firstpost)