Published on April 24th, 2015 | by Craig Silliphant0
Bloody Sunday meets Judgment Night? Perhaps not the best description, but director Yann Demange’s ’71 is a film where art meets action and succeeds thoroughly.
When young British army soldier Gary Hook has to dodge a balloon full of piss being hurled at him by Irish kids, he can’t help but laugh. It wasn’t too long ago that he was close to the age of the boys doing the throwing. Hook, played by Jack O’Connell, is still a fresh-faced young man, reacting like a young man would, grinning at their shenanigans. His unit has been called to provide support to the Royal Ulster Constabulary as they inspect (er…raid) a home for firearms in a volatile area of Belfast where Catholic Nationals and Protestant Loyalists live on top of each other during ‘The Troubles.’ When he sees the raw violence that the Constabulary enacts upon the family they’re ‘inspecting,’ Hook again reacts like a young man, this time shocked and stunned at a world he hadn’t fully realized existed. Though he has been army-trained, his awakening is watching a group of goons hold a family at gunpoint while smacking them around and taking note of the fact that he’s one of the bullies.
And it’s about to get worse. The Catholics come out in droves to protest and provoke the British troops, who try to hold the crowd back, sans riot gear thanks to the idiot orders of an inexperienced Lieutenant. When a soldier has the gun yanked out of his hand by a boy, he pursues the kid behind enemy lines, with Hook hot on his heels. As the crowd starts throwing rocks at the troops, they are forced to leave the two errant soldiers behind to fend for themselves, which suffice to say, doesn’t go well. Without giving away too many details, Hook is left alone in hostile territory, injured, with a gang of blood-hungry Nationals hunting him.
So sets the stage for ’71, one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year. Bloody Sunday meets Judgment Night? Just kidding — a Judgment Night comparison doesn’t do this film justice at all. And no, Behind Enemy Lines wouldn’t be any better.
Remember when modern action star Jason Bourne hit movie screens and made pre-Daniel Craig James Bond immediately obsolete, with its fast-punching, camera shaking realism? With ’71, Bourne and Bond are both declared cutesy comic book characters — the action in ’71 has more in common with Saving Private Ryan. If Hook survives the night, he’s likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder. At one point, Hook gets some sutures without anesthetic to close a gaping wound. He doesn’t grit his teeth and take it like a movie star — he screams like a man getting horrible impromptu surgery. As a viewer, you feel every excruciating stitch that he gets as the writing, direction, and acting all come together in a visceral way. Jack O’Connell proves himself to be the most human of action stars we’ve seen in awhile, as well as a young actor worth paying attention to.
While the action is gritty and realistic, the more thoughtful moments are atmospheric and sometimes nightmarish. Hook stumbles around dazed at one point and the menace in the air is palpable; a spooky orange glow from the streetlights, a disorienting smoky haze, and screams of terror in the distance. ‘71 is one of the most perfect intersections between jarring action movie and a thoughtful arthouse fill-um, with political balls to boot. This is the first feature from director Yann Demange, who cut his teeth in British television, but he shows a mature and assured hand that speaks of experience beyond his resume.
Smartly, Demange doesn’t choose a side or stand on a soapbox — he just lets the messy world of The Troubles act as a powerful backdrop. And as Hook maneuvers his way through the dangerous Belfast night, he’s still a young man, but he is forced to grow up very quickly. To realize a few things about the violence and futility in organized religion, territorial pissings, and war itself and what these things can do to people. Some folks take Hook in and help him — some hunt him like a dog, depending on how they’ve been programmed or where their morality lies. Even with all that jolting, realistic action, and the pretty arthouse shots, the most powerful thing that ’71 does is illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the human condition. Our capacity for good and bad, vengeance and mercy, love and hate. It’s a lot for a young man to take in all at once.