The tense thriller “71” is basically “Judgment Night” in Belfast, and I mean that as a mostly good thing.
While it’s set in Belfast at the height of the “Troubles” between Catholic and Protestants, Yann DeMange’s film most backgrounds the politics in favor of suspense, you-are-there verisimilitude and strong characterizations. Rather than take sides, the film presents Northern Ireland as a place where nobody’s hands are clean, and the most a good person can hope to do is survive.
Jack O’Connell (“Unbroken”) delivers another convincing performance as Gary Hook, a British soldier dispatched to Northern Ireland to back up the local police in their hunt for Irish Republican Army members. A short briefing since cleanly tells all we need to know about the different factions, and what a dangerous place it is.
Things go wrong almost immediately – when the soldiers are assigned to provide security for a house raid, the angry crowd surges, bricks are thrown, and the street erupts in chaos and confusion. I’m not a huge fan of “shaky-cam,” but DeMange effectively uses handheld cameras to convey Hook’s disorientation while still keeping the audience clued in on what’s going on.
Fox witnesses a fellow soldier shot to death by an IRA member, and gets cut off from his evacuating unit. Now trapped deep inside a deeply pro-IRA neighborhood, Hook has to stay hidden from the terrorists trying to find him.
O’Connell is a big guy, but “’71” never makes him an action hero, and O’Connell effectively conveys the terror and disorientation of a British soldier abandoned in what is literally the worst place in the world to be a British soldier. Even when some of the locals start to help him, the film has so successfully created an atmosphere of dread that you worry about them becoming collateral damage.
There’s another subplot involving some rogue British intelligence agents, also hunting Hook because of what he knows about their plans, that adds tension but sacrifices a fair bit of realism. Still, “’71” is a well-made suspense film with an echo of national tragedy.