by Jake Mulligan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday March 13, 2015

Jack O'Connell stars in '71
Jack O'Connell stars in '71  

Jack O'Connell may or may not become a movie star, but there's a certain type of role he can already play as well as anyone else: Troubled young men whose physical aggression is matched by their inner angst.

He always looks like he's about to pop: Veins are boiling, and it's only a question of whether the anger will manifest via his fists or his face. "'71" only confirms his capability. The film isn't directed well: It's shot for a wide aspect ratio but uses handheld cameras and shaky compositions, so you often have to actively search through the blur for comprehensible images. But O'Connell's charismatic tough guy naturalism is worth searching for.

This isn't a star-making performance, but this film is actively trying to make O'Connell a star. We're across the pond in the heat of the Troubles, during the titular year. O'Connell plays Gary, a green recruit in the British service who's dropped into Belfast as part of a peacekeeping effort during a routine arms bust. The routine gets broken: Riots erupt, the platoon retreats, and Gary is left behind with a single peer -- and that peer is quickly shot dead by the furious mob. Gary runs for it, from bar to bar, from alleyway to alleyway, from bedroom to bedroom, searching for a ride home. Don't consider this as a political film -- consider it "The Warriors," remade as historical fiction.

In between the copious fistfights, knife fights, and shoot outs, O'Connell gets the chance to play vulnerable. A convoluted political scenario leaves men on both sides of the divide out to kill him -- "The situation is confused," a superior officer laments. A few Irish men (and one arrogant boy) offer their help, but each olive branch leads to betrayal or the death of another innocent. O'Connell's performance retains an inexplicable hopefulness throughout, even as each supposed ally leads him down another dark path. He plays it like a savvy customer at a used car lot: He's well aware everyone's out to screw him, but he needs to keep his wits about him, play the game, and obtain a decent deal anyway.

Gary searches for humanity on the wrong side of the battle lines, while the film searches for a thematic heft that it never earns. Gary is given a mirror image: Sean, a young Irish boy who's being peer-pressured into committing acts of violence against the British forces. The narrative leads them to the same final battle, where tragic irony leaves one much better off than the other -- meant to leave us feeling melancholy about the need for war between any nations during any era. "You're just a piece of meat," an older man lectures Gary, conjuring up the most cliche wise-man diction he can muster. That he offers such an unspecific platitude is quite telling.

The Troubles are heavy baggage for any movie to lift, and "'71" buckles under the weight.


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