MOVIE REVIEW: '71

(Image: theguardian.com)

"'71"-- 5 STARS

The ubiquitous movie click-bait website Cinema Blend posted an article titled "The 10 Best Single Day Action Flicks" that they, naturally, deemed to be definitive.  It's a list stacked with the likes of "Training Day," "High Noon," and "Alien" and crowned by "Die Hard," "Air Force One," and "Run Lola Run" on the medal podium at 1-2-3.  As with most of their lists, Cinema Blend wins points for variety and the range to mix genres for this topic.  As always, their successful goal was to stir debate and gain web traffic.  They sure got my attention.  Specifically, this article was written to tout the new formulaic Liam Neeson thriller "Run All Night" as a possible torch bearer entry for the single-day action flick. In this writer's opinion, Cinema Blend is looking at the wrong movie that opened this weekend if it wants a really good single day action flick.  

Just in time for St. Patrick's Day, Cinema Blend should have been looking towards the Emerald Isle itself and not one of its popular native sons.  Opening in limited release nationally (including four art house theater locations in Chicago) is "'71," a single-day story set in the turbulent streets of Belfast, Northern Ireland and based on real events of the titular 20th century year in question, a year before the infamous Blood Sunday shootings.  The film debuted internationally last year at the Berlin International Film Festival and has now hit the United States.  The film is garnering an astronomical 98% "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  The last film this website reviewed that scored that high was the 99% rating "Selma" carries to this day and it was my #2 of last year.  That should be enough to get your attention, but, if it doesn't, read further.

"Unbroken" star Jack O'Connell stars as Private Gary Hook, a single father and a wet-behind-the-ears newbie in the British Army.  At the crest of what would come to be known as "The Troubles," Gary and is unit is diverted from their planned tour in Germany to the front lines of the chaotic street warfare of Belfast.  For those light on their history, the entire country of what is now Northern Ireland was a hot bed of violence for decades due to the political, ethical, and sectarian division between the Protestant Unionists, who wished for the nation to remain with the United Kingdom, and the Irish Catholic Nationalists. who wanted independence to join the rest of Ireland.  Open up a book or, if you're like me, try "In the Name of the Father," "Blood Sunday," or "The General" for movie primer tune-up trio.

When Hook and his squad take on their first security detail in Belfast, the locals begin pelting them with bags of feces and urine.  Soon enough, a vocal and angry mob turns into a hostile crowd and those bags turn into rocks and things heavy enough to knock a man out.  They are outnumbered and situation escalates.  Hook and another soldier get separated from the group to chase a child who swiped an injured soldier's rifle.  When cornered, the two are jumped, taken down, and get the boots put to them.  In the ruckus, Hook's partner gets shot point blank and killed.  In a flurry of confusion and shock, Hook manages to escape in a daring foot race through the city alleys and streets.  

Wounded himself and fearing for his life, Gary hides out until nightfall.  He emerges knowing his unit is gone and they probably think he's dead.  The streets here are a tense, uniform-less war zone where you can't tell between friend or foe, especially when you're dressed as the "bad guy" no one likes.  Gary spends the next 24 hours on the run encountering unexpected strangers, some defiant and some helpful, that understand a soldier getting killed will only make matters worse.  That doesn't stop the crooked police force, opposing factions of the IRA, and his own British soldiers from colliding to find Hook for their own gain.

"'71" might be a small, foreign-backed independent movie from a rookie director, but this little film is as good a feature film debut as writer-director Damien Chazelle and "Whiplash."  This film is not as perfect as "Whiplash," but "'71" holds its own to gives you something wholly different, non-traditional, and unpredictable by today's action standards.  Director Yann Demange and playwright/screenwriter Gregory Burke dazzle in their first foray thanks to a small time cast and a shrewd sense of pace and realism.  In a blistering 99 minutes, "'71" puts on a clinic in physical peril, raw emotional intensity, and survival mentality.  The creative duo and star Jack O'Connell empowers those clinical sensations and themes with harrowing, gritty realism and a raw point-of-view that buries you in the formidable and unforgettable mayhem.  O'Connell is now two-for-two in being put through the cinematic wringer and he's got, as "Dragnet" would say, balls as big as church bells.   

Even as a little movie that most aren't going to see, let along hear of, "'71" enters my scorecard as the first great film of 2015.  This is one is going to get remembered all year on this website.  It will make the half-way "Best of 2015 (so far)" list in late June and will hang around until the year-end.  Like my fervent love of "Whiplash," I may have found another hidden gem to stump for.  

LESSON #1: SURVIVAL IN URBAN WARFARE-- There is no battlefield that matches urban warfare.  The quarters are tight, the surroundings are unfamiliar, and the collateral damage is everywhere when you are fighting in a densely constructed and populated area that doubles as peoples' homes.  The threats can come from any direction and both friend and foe look the same.  Hook has to survive on his own in this landscape and instincts can only take him so far.

LESSON #2: CHOOSING SIDES OR NEUTRALITY IN A TENUOUS CONFLICT-- This lesson speaks to divisive strife on a larger scale unfolding around Gary Hook.  As stated earlier, the conflict in Northern Ireland stretched across political, ethical, and sectarian lines.  Loyalties and rivalries got ugly in a hurry there and few knew who could be trusted or whose side was really worth fighting for.  Those neutral in the middle got that pressure and danger from both sides.  While not overt over the pace and action centered on Hook, these layers are visible and sway like a pendulum in "'71."

LESSON #3: THE BENEVOLENCE AND DECENCY OF STRANGERS-- When you strip the politics, doctrines, causes, and labels away, what you're really watching is an innocent kid in trouble that needs help to get home.  Gary is not looking to start a fight, even if he's wearing a uniform that people judge as the provocateurs of the hate spilling into the streets.  Some people show sympathy to him, care for him, and risk their own safety to protect him, even if they constitute being on the "other side."  That's because, beyond the escalating conflict and side-choosing, there is a human decency and benevolence that is lost on some, but not by all in times of battle or war.  War can bring out the worst in people., but, sometimes, it can bring out the best too.

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