Okay I’ll just come flat-out and say it – “Jack O’Connell is the best twenty-something actor, stateside or international, that is currently working in the film industry today”. The last time I felt like I discovered an actor of his caliber was when I was first introduced to Tom Hardy (who coincidentally enough I draw a lot of comparisons between the two) in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson” (2008), who as I predicted, like I do with O’Connell, would be a household name in just a few years from then once American audiences started to take notice of these highly gifted young actors. Also, like Hardy, I first caught wind of O’Connell in 2013’s “Starred Up” (another prison drama like “Bronson” which I considered the best post-2000 film of the genre outside of Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” (2009) ). O’Connell puts in a breakthrough performance that rivaled that of his co-star, the immensely talented Ben Mendelsohn (who’s pretty much been the best part of everything I’ve seen him in). O’Connell was so good in that, that I vowed to myself that I would follow this very promising and undeniably gifted young actor in every project he does from this point forward. And at the young age of 24, he shows the potential to be just as good, if not better, than someone like a Tom Hardy or a Matthais Schoenaerts, but should achieve their same level of fame about a decade younger than they did, those actors being well into their thirties. O’Connell is basically still just a kid, which makes the anticipation of what he’s going to next all that more exciting. And so far, in just the past 2 years, he’s played the lead role in the aforementioned “Starred Up” (2013), last year’s Angelina Jolie directed “Unbroken” (which I still haven’t seen but that has recently moved to the very top of my queue simply because it stars O’Connell), and now this film. Which without giving away what I thought about it too prematurely, let’s just say I wasn’t disappointed by it.
‘”71″ is the new feature film by first time director Yann Demange (I could have sworn when I first read that name I thought it was a pseudonym for the “Muscles From Brussels”) starring Jack O’Connell in the lead (and in fact the only lead, as the rest of the roles I would barely even consider “supporting”). The film is set in (you guessed it) 1971 Northern Ireland and jumps right into the story without little to no setup other than that he’s a British solider who happens to be fighting for the Irish Army. After a quick orientation depicting his squad going through some rigorous training, it jumps right into his specific unit being briefed that they’re being deployed to a dangerous area of Belfast, where an ongoing war is taking place between 2 rival religious factions – the Protestants and Catholics. In one of the more well shot and gripping segments of the film, O’Connell’s unit lands in a war-torn area of Catholic territory, and since the Army is more aligned with the Protestants, to say the townspeople don’t take to their presence well would be a grave understatement. In fact, a full on riot ensues, which is expertly shot using a guerilla-style filmmaking style that makes you feel like you’re right there in on the action. O’Connell’s character, amidst the chaos, gets separated from the rest of his unit, and since his squad is being overpowered by the Catholics, they leave in a hurried rush without him with members of the Catholic militia on his trail (and a chase scene as good as anything I can remember on film since the Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze bank robbery foot chase from “Point Break” (1991) ). The rest of the film plays out like a game of cat and mouse where O’Connell’s character, who starts off as the hunter, now becomes the hunted, as just about every character within the film seems to want him dead. The rest of the film takes several twists and turns, which takes a hold of you in its firm grip and doesn’t let go until the film’s closing shot
This was a mightily impressive debut from director Yann Damange and yet another brilliant performance by O’Connell, who seems to be in just about every frame of the film and who is clearly the meat and bones of the picture. The film itself is gripping, taut, and engaging from start to finish, and has an incredible sense of pacing. One thing that stood out to me was that while I went into it thinking I was going to be watching a War film. It rather deftly combined other elements into it that made it an equal parts thriller, political espionage cat and mouse game evoking the works of writer John le Carre, historical drama (1969’s “Z” and 2005’s “Munich” acting as reference points throughout the film), as well as a crime film (my fellow movie companion said it felt a bit like David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom” (2010). Which I didn’t get at first but when he started to explain the levels of corruption by all members of society, I could see why he drew the comparison and understood how he could tie it in. The camerawork was also stunning, and shot in a style reminiscent of the recent films of Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”, “Zero Dark Thirty”) which made it feel authentically real. The only few very minor criticisms I had of the piece was that they didn’t really provide much back story into O’Connell’s character. That and I found many of the interlocking characters from the different facets of society a bit difficult to follow. Kind of how I feel about Asian films depicting the Yakuza – certain characters are difficult to tell apart as many of them appear similarly. Lastly, I think the film could have been expanded on and went further into its story which seemed to go across by quickly at a rather brisk 99 minutes. Those few minor criticisms aside though, this was a well acted, thoroughly engaging, and gripping meta-film about a time and place in history that prior going into the film, I knew little to next to nothing about. And in summation, it was only the second film I’ve seen this year outside of “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” that I was so engaged in that I didn’t take a bathroom break because I couldn’t bear the thought of missing even a second of this well constructed and incredibly tense film. That had me on the edge of my seat from its start to its nicely poetic and emotional finish.