PLOT: A young British soldier (Jack OConnell) finds himself separated from his unit and trapped behind enemy lines in 1971 Belfast at the height of The Troubles.
REVIEW: Lightening really did strike twice at TIFF this year. I say this because last year, in the dwindling days of the fest, I was totally taken off-guard by STARRED UP, a nifty thriller starring British newcomer Jack OConnell, who was quickly snapped up by none other than Angelina Jolie to star in UNBROKEN. OConnells done it again with 71, another amazing thriller that came along in the last few days of the fest, and was on-par with some of the best movies I saw there.
Think of this as a kind of historical-style BOURNE-thriller, with OConnell as a young soldier hunted on the streets of Belfast by the IRA after being separated from his unit during a scuffle. Alone and not knowing who to trust, his harrowing journey makes 71 one of the most pulse-poundingly intense thrillers Ive seen in a while.
Given the complexity of the subject matter, the good guys/ bad guys question is left vague, with the IRA killers humanized in the same way the English soldiers are. Nobody wants to be in the situation theyre in, but its war. OConnell makes for an extremely charismatic hero. The early scenes show him as a former orphan with a younger brother still in child services. Once hes on his own in Belfast, he goes out of his way to avoid endangering anyone, with him finding a young sidekick in a Protestant lad who tries to help him, with heart-wrenching results.
Astonishingly, this is director Yann Demanges first feature (hes a TV director in the UK) but hes got such a sure hand on the helm that youd think he was a veteran. This is one of the best debuts Ive seen in a while, and watching this I couldnt help but think of him as the second coming of Paul Greengrass by way of Carol Reed (THE THIRD MAN, ODD MAN OUT). Considering the relatively low-budget, hes made a slick thriller thats totally evocative of the era and jam-packed with action and intrigue. Lest you think the IRA members are the only baddies here (not that theyre strictly villains anyway), the always menacing Sean Harris (SOUTHCLIFFE) shows up as a dodgy MI6 operator with motives of his own for wanting to find OConnell.
71 also has to rank as one of the leanest films I saw at TIFF. With it running a mere ninety-nine minutes, not a frame is wasted, and theres absolutely no flab. It maintains almost unbearable tension all the way though, while also telling a complex tale. Its also quite striking on a visual level, with it having the docu-drama look one associates with the era, with it having been shot with a seamless blend of 16mm and digital.
Without a doubt, 71 was one of the smash hits of the festival, with everyone buzzing about how good it was over the last weekend. Clearly Jack OConnell is a future mega-star in the Christian Bale-mold, while Hollywood should immediately take notice of Demange, who just might become the next go-to action auteur. 71 is a winner.
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