British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) does the only sane thing when faced with imminent death: He runs. His unit is deployed to Belfast as director Yann Demange’s feature debut “’71” opens. The film’s title is the only back story needed: early 1970s Northern Ireland, during the conflicts that pit Catholic and Irish nationalists and republicans against Ulster Protestants and union loyalists to the British. In the film’s fictional story, Gary’s unit helps local police on a door-to-door neighborhood sweep. One minute they’re staring down angry residents, the next they’re dodging a hail of bricks. Gary and a comrade are sent in pursuit of a kid making off with a rifle when the protest gathers numbers and causes the police and military to retreat. That’s when a man shoots Gary’s comrade point-blank in the face.
What follows is a frantic foot chase as Gary panics down alleyways, over brick walls, and through people’s homes with a pair of shooters on his tail, finally finding momentary safety in an outhouse. Demange’s film follows Gary’s overnight efforts to stay alive as members of Belfast’s warring factions search for him. It’s a chase flick dressed in historical unrest, and the only quibble about this satisfyingly thrilling action movie is how content it is to be so politically anodyne.
Director Demange and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe are television pros, and they bring the small screen’s narrative concision to this film’s streamlined plot: Gary hides, people seek. That means the movie rests predominantly on the shoulders of O’Connell’s often wordless, constantly physical performance and Radcliffe’s impressive camerawork. Brief early scenes sketch Gary as a young man from working-class Derbyshire with a younger brother who lives in a group home. These scenes qualify Gary’s ordinariness, and though wearing military dress, O’Connell’s contained anxiety and skittish presence makes Gary resemble the young men who stalk him through the night.
Radcliffe appears to work mostly handheld during Gary’s survival nightmare, and he uses the pitch-black of deserted, bombed-out streets to make a neighborhood feel intimidatingly claustrophobic. This combination of O’Connell’s human fear and Radcliffe’s shadowy menace conveys how people feel when their streets become war zones.
But that tension relies more on action-movie conventions than political risk. At one point a wounded Gary is taken in by a Catholic young woman and her father (the dependable Richard Dormer), an ex-army medic who, upon finding out where Gary’s from, counsels: “A bunch of posh cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts—that’s the army for you.” It’s one of the too few times the film breaks from the plot’s drive to comment on how political institutions consume their citizenry to preserve power, an idea the film itself resists embracing. Instead, it settles for safer theme, that of the everyman overcoming overwhelming odds. Make no mistake: “’71” is gripping. But it’s gripping without wanting to ask its audience, which side are you on?