Northern Ireland, 1971. A year before the infamous “Bloody Sunday,” tensions between Catholics and Protestants are reaching a boiling point. A young British paratrooper (Jack O’Connell) is sent with his squad to maintain order and assist the local constabulary with a house-to-house search in Catholic-controlled west Belfast. His young and wet-behind-the-ears leftenant told them to ditch their riot gear and don their berets because “we need to go out there and reassure people. We're here to protect them. We need to look them in the eye and tell them that.” Whoo boy, just what could possibly go wrong?
''71,' first-time French helmer Yann Demange’s superbly crafted and tightly paced historical melodrama, is cut from the same cloth as Walter Hill's 'Southern Comfort,' a heady cocktail of adrenaline-fueled survival story mixed with a riveting cat-and-mouse hunt through the mean streets of west Belfast. Taut and nail-bitingly suspenseful, '’71' paints a vivid and sobering picture of the religious tensions and political upheavals in Northern Ireland at a time when enemies can become friends and the loyalties of “friends” can be questionable. Jack O’Connell, who recently portrayed yank Louie Zamperini in Angelina Jolie’s ‘Unbroken,’ proved once again that he’s a talented young Brit actor to keep an eye on, delivering a compelling and believable performance as the hapless soldier-in-peril trapped deep inside hostile territory trying to survive.
From the opening scene of his army training to his final deliverance, '’71' grabs us and never lets go. While there are scenes of brutal violence, including a bombing at a loyalist pub by the IRA, there are also moments of kindness, such as a former medic and his daughter patching up our badly injured protagonist. By far my favorite scene in the movie is a furious foot chase through the streets and alleyways of Belfast the likes of which we haven’t seen on celluloid since Keanu Reeves' undercover FBI agent doggedly pursued Patrick Swayze's bank robber in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 surf noir crime thriller ‘Point Break.’