Jack O’Connell seems to love playing guys who get the snot kicked out of them.
He was an incarcerated thug in the grim English prison drama “Starred Up” and a tortured POW in “Unbroken.” Now, he’s a British soldier trapped alone behind enemy lines in ’70s Northern Ireland during “the Troubles” in the gripping and stomach-tighteningly suspenseful “’71.” And, yes, the man has to take another beating or two.
O’Connell is Gary Hook, a new army recruit who is immediately shipped off to Belfast, where the sectarian conflict between Protestant loyalists who want to stay part of the U.K. and Catholic nationalists is at its deadly peak. His commanders warn against going into Catholic neighborhoods alone, so when Gary, after a fracas during a house search, is accidentally abandoned by his unit in such an area and his gun is stolen, his life suddenly isn’t worth very much.
If this were “The Bourne Identity” or “The Raid,” Gary would be a martial-arts master who could just artfully kick and punch his way to safety. But Gary is not an action hero who barely bleeds but a scared, sweaty young man who may not live to see what’s left his family – a younger brother in an orphanage – again.
Now, he has a faction of IRA sympathizers after him – they’ve already shot another abandoned soldier point-blank in the head – and they’re not going to rest until he’s dead. Meanwhile, his unit, led by the well-meaning but inexperienced Lt. Armitage (Sam Reid) is looking to rescue him, but it’s hamstrung by a trio of British undercover intelligence agents, who should be on Gary’s side but might have divided loyalties. Outside of Gary, no one may be clean in this war.
Shot by first-time feature director Yann Demange on the gritty streets of Sheffield and Liverpool in a style that puts the viewer in the crosshairs of the action, “’71” is bracing from beginning to end.