Starring 'Unbroken's' Jack O'Connell, and winner of several awards, including Best Director for Yann Demange at the 2014 British Independent Film Awards, '71' is certainly worth our attention. But is it actually any good?
The film follows Private Gary Hook, newly deployed to Belfast during "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. When a riot breaks out on his very first sortie, and he's accidentally abandoned by his unit, Hook must navigate a hostile and violent city, unable to tell friend from foe. Further complicating things for Hook, and unknown to him, are the internal divisions between arms of the Irish Nationalists, and the pragmatic ruthlessness of the Loyalist undercover operatives.
This is a violent film, but unlike most action blockbusters, the violence is uncomfortably realistic, and deliberately so. People really did hold riots in the streets, including women and children. Children really did throw Molotov cocktails and steal firearms. And young men really did shot soldiers in the head, without thought or regret, simply because the soldier was British.
The story itself is more complicated than expected, as while Hook hides and tries to make his way to safety, the Nationalists hunting him are also plotting to overthrow their leadership and the Army is hindered in their search by the undercover agents, who would prefer Hook dead because he may have witnessed part of their operation. Keeping track of the various agendas isn't helped by forgettable players and difficult dialogue.
I wasn't very impressed with O'Connell in 'Unbroken' and he hasn't managed to change my mind here. I found his portrayal of Hook frustrating and annoying. I can understand that the character was frightened, panicked, and alone, but O'Connell also made him limp and child-like. He spent most of the film with wide eyes and his mouth open in an awed little pout that entirely negated the first few minutes of brutal army training. Is he a soldier or a scared child? That was most likely the point and the film was challenging us to draw those parallels of corrupted childhood, however, I'm sure there would have been less distracting methods of doing it. Surely a Best Director winner could have found a way. Also frustrating are the overly long scenes of dazed disorientation as Hook runs from pursuers or stumbles away from explosions. The same visceral effect could have been achieved with a shorter scene that didn't result in having to look away from the screen.
This is a violent film, but unlike most action blockbusters, the violence is uncomfortably realistic, and deliberately so.
The real stand out performer is Corey McKinley as Billy, who while only on screen a short time makes a lasting impression as a Loyalist boy, swearing and drinking and holding his own. I wouldn't be surprised if we start to see a lot more of him. Also worthy of mention is Sean Harris ('Prometheus') who plays undercover Captain Browning with a creepy lack of remorse.
It isn't all bad: the score is great, effectively enhancing tension and danger; performances from the supporting cast are very good, and apart from what's mentioned above, direction and editing are decent. Pacing is very good with the film maintaining a brutal momentum throughout, and it ignores the standard war-film tropes in favour of a gritty noir feel. '71' is a very educational film; it's touching and horrifying. There are no good guys or bad guys, with each side equally reprehensible. Unfortunately, the film fails to draw out an emotional attachment to the protagonist, and the ending is rather soft, if realistic. There's nothing really special about it; it's just okay.
If you're interested in an un-Hollywood-ised portrayal of urban warfare and survival, then '71' is worth a look. Otherwise, it's not a film to see for enjoyment.