“You’re just a piece of meat to them,” Eamon McCarthy (Richard Dormer)
Imagine a British APOCALYPTO, set in Northern Ireland, during the 1970s. ’71 is a small-scale, yet more tense BLACK HAWK DOWN. Positioning an action-thriller during the Troubles might have been tasteless in the wrong hands, but writer Gregory Burke, director Yann Demange and cast/crew concoct a story that traverses a political knife-edge without taking sides; and actually offers a fascinatingly bleak take on that civil unrest.
Opening on a boxing match among soldiers, with a “Welcome to the regiment” from the group leader, we witness their training regimen. Of course they, and us, are being prepped for what is about to unfold. Instead of being transferred from England to the perceived dream deployment of West Germany (see BUFFALO SOLDIERS), due to a deteriorating security situation, they are sent to Belfast. Pre-relocation, Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell – STARRED UP, 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE) visits his little brother in a care home, a grim abode. Foreshadowing and prefiguring, ’71 wants to economically establish themes of isolation and societal failure.
Once in Northern Ireland, a summary of the political situation is quickly offered, and a caste commentary begins. Posh boys dominate army hierarchy, while the cannon fodder is from the working strata. Lieutenant Armitage (Sam Reid – THE RAILWAY MAN, BELLE) takes the green crew into an aggressive shakedown of a Catholic street without adequate riot gear armour. Production design conveys a warzone. Soldiers are there to provide protection to the police, who are unashamed in their physical and verbal brutality. An English armed forces perspective is not here about projecting bias. Civilian volatility creates an inability to contain the increasingly violent clashes between demonstrators and the authorities. Separated from the squad and mistakenly left behind as the soldiers pull out, Gary and a colleague are in hostile territory. The latter is murdered, and a chase film par excellence commences as Gary manages to escape: Lots of shaky-camera (à la POINT BREAK) as the protagonist hurtles weaponless down narrow alleyways in a community that has no street signs.
Tempo variance, and observations on the various sides’ responses to civil disobedience, allow ’71 to avoid sinking into a one-note flick. No organisation comes off well: Betrayal, self-serving, conscienceless behaviour is at times nightmarish in the Odyssey-like narrative.
A humanistic character, ex medic Eamon (Dormer – GAME OF THRONES, GOOD VIBRATIONS), distils war down to one line, “Posh c*nts telling thick c*nts to kill poor c*nts.”
Fresh and gripping.