Serious question: when was the last time an explosion mattered in a movie?
There’s been a trend of digitized debris in mainstream movies over the last decade, where frequent explosions and property damage are on such a ludicrous scale that one can’t help but feel de-sensitized to it. Buildings get smashed as movie extras on stages look agog. Destruction happens at the click of a computer animator’s fingers. In last spring’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Anthony Mackie ran away from a crashing air carrier in a federal building, and the over-the-top look and feel made it impossible to care. Of course he’d be fine. There’s no chance in hell anyone would look at this like something that could really happen.
But what about a pub bombing in Belfast, Ireland? Those really happened. People died in them, in real life.
Without disclosing dramatic disasters, in ’71, cinematic acts of mayhem are reclaimed and presented as something resembling reality. And the effect is shocking. What’s pitched as an ostensible survival thriller turns out to be a decent chronicle of 1970s IRA extremism, and more impressively, a powerhouse parable on the foolishness of fussing and fighting, my friend — all because we remember how to give a damn about people. ’71 reminds its audience that people get hurt very badly when brightly colored bursts of range and red are enacted on a structure full of people. Explosions mean pain and blood and consequence here. ’71 isn’t trying to impress anyone with its action violence, and that’s an incredible quality.
In the early ‘70s, Northern Ireland was at peak levels of internal conflict. “The Troubles” is the remembered name for a period where the Protestant, unionist majority of Ireland wanted to stay with the UK, but the nationalist, republican, and strongly Irish Catholic minority sought to create a republic of Ireland. Old IRA versus new IRA. It’s a bloody bit of Irish history, with an estimated 50,000 injuries on both sides and over 3,600 deaths.
In ‘71’s perspective, it’s actually a period of such desperate factions and anger and distrust that allegiance is almost meaningless when things go dog-eat-dog. No one person is fully incorruptible. Trust is meaningless, and without revealing the knotty relationships, just know that for everyone’s bluster and pride, these guys still jump from team to team in order to save their own asses.
In this very moment, a squad of British soldiers is diverted from their deployment to Germany. They’re needed in Belfast, as peacekeepers, assistance. This is where we meet Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell, in one tenacious and determined performance), a young British soldier. He’s got a kid, isn’t a passionate military man, and is a small guy who likely enlisted as a means to an end.
When sent in to assist with a sweep for guns on Divis Street, the situation devolves at breathtaking speed. Spitting turns into shoving. Shoving to punching. Punching into shots fired. As Hook’s regime bolts, he’s unfortunately left behind. Might as well be for dead. But what happens next is a virtuoso endurance test. A lot of people want Gary dead, and he’s got to hold on just long enough until somebody can get him out of there.
One could argue it’s a disservice to use IRA political discourse as the basis for a chase film, but what a run it is. First-time director Yann Demarge helms with a sparse and focused intensity, where by hanging with Hook, we get the peripheral wheeling and dealings and fire bombings and street shootings of an era gone mad. Jack’s not a distinct soldier. He’s anybody ever caught in a sticky situation; the stickiness here relating to blood and dirt and debris. Demarge ratchets the tension and anxiety like a pro, allowing for things to continually get worse as Hook has to readjust. He likely could not give a damn about the fight; he’s allegedly neutral, an outsider looking in just trying to keep things civil.
’71, for all its fox-holing and footwork, makes a striking point about the futility of war. If Hook is trying not to get killed, and everybody trying to kill him has dubious motives at best, what’s the point? What does anybody really gain killing some poor soldier who was in the wrong place at the worst possible time? All the suffering and fighting serves to actually shock and make a point: killing is pointless. Violence solves incredibly little. Guns and bombs just hurt people. People we often love. It’s an age-old war story theme, but it’s seldom done this forcefully.
One last thing: Jack O’Connell. He’s been kind of a flavor of the month actor, but he’s got something. He’s now shown up in three physically arduous roles with this, Unbroken, and Starred Up. He has a knack and willingness for being in pain, apparently, but one hopes he continues getting challenging roles like this. He’s clearly up to them. O’Connell works tirelessly in ’71 to make us afraid of that situation and for his life. He limps, gets bloody, witnesses death, not in a John McLane way, but as someone witnessing real trauma all around. There’s a vulnerability to him that works like gangbusters for this kind of story. He’s not a tough guy, but a survivor.