Skip to main content

Everybody's looking for that boy.

‘71
(2014)

(SPOILERS) TV director Yann Demange’s big screen debut depicts a tense, claustrophobic struggle for survival in unknown alien territory. There’s danger at every quarter and only ever limited respite. Such tales are a subgenre unto themselves, from the backwoods versus civilised man of Deliverance (and its spiritual remake Southern Comfort) to comedy of urban disarray After Hours. The difference with ’71 is that its backdrop generally inspires stern tones and serious discussion; the Troubles. Accordingly, some might regard the film as in poor taste. Yet, despite rejecting overt political or moral debate, this doesn’t make the mistake of proceeding in a shallow or irreverent manner; ’71 does have a position, but it’s one intentionally shorn of rigorous analysis of its chosen environment; it arrives through the eyes of a protagonist just trying to live through the night.


On that level, the picture most closely resembles the imminent urban horror of early John Carpenter (Assault on Precinct 13, Escape from New York) or gang movies such as The Warriors (Walter Hill again) and The Wanderers. Indeed, while playwright Gregory Burke’s screenplay gives significant time to the enemy (who come at our main character from all quarters, both Provisional IRA and the undercover army counter-insurgency unit attempting to cover its tracks) it makes no bones about the machinations and motivations of those with vested interests being thoroughly unscrupulous. Power struggles and infighting are rife. Self-preservation, rather than conviction, is the priority, be it in the British Army or the paramilitaries.


This is crystallised by casting an “innocent” in the midst of it all. At one point Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is told the army doesn’t care about him, he’s just a piece of meat to them; the downbeat conclusion, in which there is an inevitable cover-up of the truth, goes to confirm this. As defining is Hook’s conversation with the lad who offers to lead him to safety across enemy lines. Asked if he is a protestant, Derbyshire-raised Hook replies that he doesn’t know. The boy can scarcely believe him, since denomination is an essential aspect of existence.


Demange and Burke take time to introduce Hook – on a training exercise, visiting his brother in the children’s home – before he is told that, rather than Berlin, his unit is heading for Belfast. Undesirable elements further arrange themselves as a new commander Lieutenant Armitage (Sam Reid) is introduced, young and inexperienced and a bit of a fool (while his first appearance suggests the classic groaner of the upper class idiot officer, Burke grants him an olive branch of honour at the end even though it is his remiss orders that land Hook in his mess). 


When the unit is sent to provide back-up for an RUC house search in the Falls Road, the heated situation quickly turns into a street riot and Hook and another soldier become separated.  A gunman kills this soldier, and Hook flees for his life. As day turns to night, he finds himself pursued not only by the IRA but also by his own (the plain clothes Military Reaction Force).


Demange handles the action with deceptively easy confidence. From the confused escalation of the riot to a foot chase through empty backstreets, passageways, and empty shells of buildings, he creates a breathless, edge-of-seat, environment. Most importantly he understands how to use handheld camera without sacrificing the rhythms of a sequence or spatial geography. The chase might be the best since Point Break; it certainly compares for ambition and urgency.


O’Connell, who is carrying the picture for the most part (the decision to put him partially out of action comes as a surprise to that extent, but it also serves to keep the audience on their toes as to what may lie ahead), is outstanding. Frightened and vulnerable, but not at the expense of his wits, Hook’s rawest moment comes when he first eludes his pursuers by hiding in an outhouse. His first reaction is to claw for breath, which then breaks into uncontrollable sobbing. Demange takes a lot of care to put us right there with the lost private; later, as Hook stumbles shell-shocked from the scene of a pub bomb, the tinnitus and visual fog is overpowering.


As with any such similar narrative, there are moments of reprieve before our hero is thrown to the wolves again. Richard Dormer plays a Good Samaritan (Eamon) who is compelled to help Hook, even given the risks his daughter Brigid (Charlie Murphy) impresses upon him. It is he, who as an army medic has seen first hand the horrors that occur when men are treated as cannon fodder. Few characters, understandably, have the courage of their convictions in this world (also notable is the woman who gets in the way of the mob beating on the two privates), and Demange refrains from more typical movie heroism that comes from overt acts of valour or derring-do. 


We see this difference early on when Hook goes into a building where an interrogation is taking place, or witnesses police brutality on the street; his instincts tell him it is not right, but he follows orders. It is ironic and inevitable, then, that Eamon should lead Hook into the lion’s den; the very flats that Hook’s unit has been told to avoid at all costs. It’s left unknown, but there is surely little doubt that there will be reprisals against Eamon and Brigid for saving Hook.


It’s true that a picture such as this, infused with compressed mayhem and white-knuckle tension, relies on a certain level of contrivance to keep up its momentum. That Hook should end up in the very pub where Paul Anderson’s plainclothes sergeant is planning subterfuge is on the unlikely side, while the interlacing trails that bring the various factions to the Divis Flats is also overly convenient. Nevertheless, Demange maintains a constant edge and immediacy such that these points never become glaring.


There are moments too that surprise and add nuance to the nuts-and-bolts of the serviceable structure. The amusing scene that comes out of nowhere, as the cocky “loyalist child” leads the silent Hook to a checkpoint and remonstrates those manning it; they immediately change their tune when he mentions his ranking uncle. The child is tougher and more worldy-wise than Hook, but it doesn’t prevent him going up with the pub. 


A later scene finds Hook hunted by the young IRA men. He stabs one (Martin McCann), but Demange and Burke don’t turn this into a moment of triumph. Instead Hook, who has never killed a man before, remains with him as the life ebbs away. That ‘71 denies Hook classic heroics (and injures him) is crucial to it avoiding descent into the realms of an exploitation picture. 


Balanced against this is the occasional duff spot. The character we thought was dead, who rises to take a last shot, is more the sort of thing one would expect from a Lethal Weapon and the pyrotechnic shoot-out that accompanies the conclusion is perhaps over-rehearsed. Yet the point where the picture concludes, with no means to buck the system, is appropriately jaundiced.


The entire cast acquit themselves with honours. Others deserving a mention include David Wilmot, Barry Keoghan (who reminds me of the kid haunting Kiefer in Flatliners) and Corey McKinley as that “loyalist child”. Sean Harris is typically rodent-like and ferocious as the MRF captain; if he isn’t quite as disturbing as he was in Red Riding Trilogy, I’ve yet to see him in anything where he doesn’t utterly command any given scene. (Actually, scratch that, I recall that he loves rocks. He fucking loves them)


David Holmes provides an outstanding synth score, unobtrusive but insistent, atmospherically lurking alongside and complementing the action. Likewise, the gritty ‘70s milieu feels entirely authentic without ever wagging the dog. I might take issue with the title, which suggests the picture has an agenda or intent it doesn’t really. It also might have been more powerful still without the bookending of Hook and his brother, although this feeds into the scenes with McKinley so its understandable why they were retained (further, they provide respite and establish that the picture is about Hook rather than where he is shipped to). O’Connell is going from strength-to-strength just now (he’s rumoured for Gilliam’s ever-delayed Don Quixote) and Demange will no doubt be getting big offers in the post on the back of ’71. He has made a fine thriller with a palpable sense of time and place, just one that is not really about that time and place.





Comments

Popular posts from this blog

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.