’71 played last night, and screens again tonight, at the 52nd New York Film Festival. Roadside Attractions will release the film theatrically next year.
No bones about it: ‘71 is a boiling-hot piece of action cinema. In this whiz-bang thrill-ride debut, filmmaker Yann Demange not only demonstrates a sublime understanding of the mechanics of chasing people through physical space, but also makes a worthy stab at a shoot-em-up that’s not entirely insulting to the historical and/or political brain. Jack O’Connell stars as a British soldier named Gary, stranded for a night in Belfast after a crowd-control intervention goes desperately wrong (to get an idea: imagine cute kids running around with rifles). A confluence of warring forces—his platoon, the hard-line Irish Republican separatists, the more conciliatory Protestants and a few covert agents from the UK—all mobilize to get their hands on Gary as he bewilderedly limps from place to place in the city’s dark crevices.
The plotting is old-school, but the choreography of violence is swift, abrupt, discomfiting. Gary’s training allows him to suffer a truly grotesque, Mel Gibson-like amount of personal pain, including being exploded in a botched bombing—coordinated by the British government and the Protestants. The growing obviousness of his pawn status dominates the film’s second half, and the eternally shifting loyalties of seemingly every character—a Catholic doctor who takes him in and helps him, or a hotheaded teen who’s never killed before—keeps the film, at a minimum, highly entertaining. But pick it apart and it makes sense that ’71 could only be based on a fictional incident. The weighty tone and the endeavor to give all sides their own cold-blooded rationale in rhythm smacks of Nolan or Inarritu. The Republicans come out short, but the British turn out the most sadistic in their imperium—leaving the young hero shaking his head with questions.