I never thought I’d see a film where the main character is a MacGuffin, but that’s what Private Gary Hook (played by a curiously compelling Jack O’Connell) in ’71 is. Hook is the thing that everyone in the film wants to get, and what happens to him in the end really doesn’t matter all that much compared to what happens to the people chasing him.
That kind of structure doesn’t make for complex characters, but in this case, it does make for a complicated community of people. ’71 takes place over the course of a single night (more or less) in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1971 during the heyday of the street violence of the time. Hook gets separated from his unit and has to survive the night. Everyone wants to kill him, it seems, and they all want to kill each other, too. They all continually double-cross each other, and if you’re not paying attention, you’ll lose track of who is on whose side. In the end, it seems that no one is on anyone’s side. That’s kind of the point, and it’s a point made even more clear by a few very clever references to High Noon near the film’s conclusion, High Noon being the quintessential film about a community of people who willfully choose mayhem over each other.
If that last paragraph makes the film sound like a drama, I’m doing ’71 a disservice. The film is principally a gripping action thriller, albeit one that’s made to look like a 70s conspiracy thriller. It’s a fitting mix, because while Hook’s escape attempt has all the trappings of the latest Liam Neeson flick, the atmosphere is much more Gene Hackman-esque. It somehow works wonderfully. I think it’s because the pacing is so good and because the entire cast is so much fun to watch. I’ve already mentioned how good Jack O’Connell is even though all he is given to do in this film is react, but if Killian Scott doesn’t become the next big movie star out of Ireland, I’ll be shocked.
Everything ’71 is “about” is right there on its gritty, breakneck speed surface. It is a film concerned with the ways the people of Northern Ireland turned on each other, and it laments all the casualties of that conflict. It doesn’t really get much deeper than that, but it isn’t trying to, and it doesn’t need to try to.
There’s nothing wrong with a good action movie, and good action movies rarely have as much soul as ’71. Action movies rarely mourn their many dead like ’71 does. Action movies rarely leave you feeling sorry for everyone on the screen and everyone not on screen, the people no doubt hiding in their houses while their city burns around them. Action movies rarely make you wish the world was a more peaceful place. ’71 does all those things and grips you so tight you feel like you can’t breathe. Catch it if you can.