One of the most striking scenes in director Yann Demange’s ‘71 comes early on. Jack O’Connell plays a young private in the British Army, sent to Belfast as part of a peace-keeping mission. For the ignorant Americans in the viewing audience, we’re told by a helpful military guy that Ireland is harshly divided, with the IRA fighting for a an independent Northern Ireland, free of British rule. Jack O’Connell’s Private Gary Hook and his fellow grunts are sent to the front lines of that dispute, and there they are not exactly greeted as liberators.
What’s striking is how the ensuing confrontation is exactly what one typically sees in a movie set in the Middle East, or what one sees watching the evening news. The only difference is everyone is white and speaking English, but the ferocity and sincerity of those involved—as well as the ever-present threat of violence—is exactly the same.
Things very quickly get out of hand and soon Private Hook is alone and on the run in a land so alien it and hostile it might as well be another planet. Demange is fantastic at putting you right in the action, with first a riot and then a foot chase that is filmed so tightly and realistically, it rivals the opening D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan with its intensity.
In his struggles to stay alive behind enemy lines, Hook encounters both friend and foe (sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which) and is repeatedly beaten and injured along the way. Not since the original Die Hard has a hero felt so fallible and mortal, with each new injury slowing him down even more. Hook breaks down and weeps uncontrollably no less than three times in the movie and instead of making him look weak, it makes him look strong, because he knows he’s no Terminator, that he probably won’t make it, but he has to try.
Though seemingly hard to imagine things getting any worse, the action and the bodies begin to pile up in the third act, and I’ll use the word striking again to describe my utter surprise that each and every death in this movie is treated with a reverence and solemnity that is rarely seen in cinema. There are no faceless goons here. At one point Hook must kill one of his attackers—in self-defense, completely justified—and the moment is treated like the death of a heroic main character.
It’s powerful enough to make you weep like a solider.