Film review: 71 from ‘Built For Speed’

71 is a tense atmospheric and often moving drama set in Northern Ireland in 1971 as the so-called ‘troubles’ began to spiral out of control.

Jack O’Connell (who recently starred in Unbroken) plays young naive British soldier Gary Hook who is hoping for a comfortable posting in Germany but finds himself thrust into the forbidding urban warzone of Belfast.  As part of a peace-keeping force to prevent bloodshed between the Protestant Loyalists and the Catholic IRA, Gary finds himself in the middle of a chaotic and seemingly hopeless situation.  When he becomes separated from his regiment during a riot he is forced to hide out from the IRA in dilapidated buildings and backyards as he tries to make his way back to his barracks.  His odyssey through Belfast’s dangerous streets sees him encounter various locals whose lives have been damaged by the fighting and who have varying levels of contempt and compassion for Gary.  He also discovers that not only is he a target for the IRA target but also corrupt elements from his side.

This success of this film lies in the way first time (feature) director Yann Demange is able to drops us into the broiling cauldron of 1970’s Belfast.  He powerfully depicts a dark, threatening, out of control world where alliances are of little value and safety is an illusion.  In this morally ambiguous world, guilt, innocence, right and wrong are never clear.

While this gritty, engrossing and assured film forges a distinct identity, aspects of 71 are admittedly familiar.  The film’s depiction of young soldiers thrust into a situation beyond their understanding and control where they have to deal with hostile civilians recalls Platoon.  71 also references the films of Paul Greengrass, particularly Green Zone in its depiction of a decent soldier confronting destructive, inhumane forces among his supposed allies.  There’s even a touch of Escape from New York in its portrayal of a lone soldier fighting his way through a dark and intimidating urban landscape.  

Jack O’Connell delivers a fine if not indelible performance as Gary and conveys an authentic mix of bravado, naiveté and ultimately abject terror.  Appropriately, he doesn’t offer Rambo heroics or John Maclean wise-cracks just a desperate attempt to survive in an overwhelming situation.  The film features a large ensemble cast as it explores a variety of sub-plots which involve alarmingly vitriolic special ops officers and members of Gary’s platoon.  For the most part performances are convincing although the film does contain the jarring cliché of the nervous bumbling young lieutenant (Sam Reid) whose decisions lead to disaster.

Set in 1971 there’s plenty of big hair and questionable fashion but the art direction never overwhelms the film’s poignant message.

While this film is often thrilling and contains a potent and bruising depiction of war it never seeks to glorify conflict. The film’s attitude to war is summed up by one character who (to paraphrase) exclaims that war is about rich people forcing uneducated people to shoot poor people.

71 is a powerful and confronting portrayal of conflict and of the dubious hierarchies that operate within it.

Nick’s rating: ****1/2.

Genre: War/ drama.

Classification: MA.

Director(s): Yann Demange.

Release date: 19th March 2015.

Running time: 99 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

Film review – UNBROKEN, from ‘Built For Speed’

Unbroken is Angelina Jolie‘s second film as director following 2011’s In the Land of Blood and Honey.  A World War Two drama, Unbroken explores important topics in an earnest manner and with impressive film-making technique but doesn’t amount to an entirely satisfying film. 

Unbroken tells the gruelling story of American Private Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) a delinquent kid turned star athlete and WW2 bomber pilot who was shot down over the Pacific and after more than a month on a raft was captured and repeatedly tortured by the Japanese.  Despite horrendous treatment he refused to succumb to despair and bitterness.

This was clearly meant to be an inspirational story of a scrappy kid beating the odds of a troubled upbringing, near starvation and prison camp inhumanity.  Rather than a rousing story of courage, though, this film turns into torture porn with overtones of martyrdom as Zamperini suffers innumerable beatings and sadistic treatment from prison camp commander Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara).  The film almost recalls The Passion of the Christ in its depiction of Zamperini’s endless suffering; at one point it even has him holding up a heavy wooden plank in a crucifixion pose.  Prisoners of war obviously suffered appallingly but this film’s depiction of that suffering becomes strangely unrealistic.  From a purely cinematic perspective, Bridge on the River Kwai and The Railway Man provided more compelling visions of what prisoners endured at the hands of the Japanese in the Second World War.

Jack O’Connell does an adequate job as the nuggetty Zamperini but doesn’t give the character enough dimension or nuance to make him particularly memorable.  Louis may have been more interesting if we’d learned more about his athletic career and seen him as an adult outside the relentless brutality of the prison camp.  O’Connell should, however, be commended for his endurance in what must have been a physically demanding shoot. Much more memorable is Takamasa Ishihara as Louis’ grinning, neurotic, embittered nemesis Watanabe. His desperation to break Louis reveals inner torment which makes his actions comprehensible without ever being acceptable.

Shot mostly in Australia the film contains some visually stunning sequences which reveal Angelina Jolie’s inventiveness as a director; the way in which she depicts the aerial battle sequences early in the film are unnervingly realistic.  Pacing is a problem in this film, though, with some sections, particularly the Life of Pi-like raft sequence, dragging on much too long. 

From a visual standpoint this is an exciting directorial effort for Jolie but let’s hope that with her next film she makes her subject more fascinating.

Nick’s rating: ***.

Genre: War/ drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Angelina Jolie.

Release date: 15th Jan 2015.

Running time:  137 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.