Boots on the ground

There's big trouble in Belfast in ''71'

Lean, mean craftsmanship defines the compact (para)military thriller "'71," set during the titular time of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Over the course of a long dark night, one young British soldier gets an education in the politics of de facto martial law and the terrifying scramble for survival behind enemy lines.

In what's characterized as providing assistance to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the civilian police), the British Army hits the streets in a show of intimidation. Ostensibly the troops are attempting to stave off direct conflict with contentious locals -- particularly the mostly Catholic Irish nationalists who stand in opposition to the mostly Protestant loyalists -- but of course the Army's behind-doors bullying and conspicuous presence on suburban lanes only invites ire.

And so it is that a riot quickly greets the unit of rookie recruit Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell of "Unbroken"). In the chaos that ensues, Gary gets left behind, chased by armed civilians and driven into hiding. As the night wears on, he must rely on the kindness of strangers in the hopes of living long enough for rescue. Rival factions, including the IRA, prowl the streets, some actively searching for Gary and few above recruiting teenage boys into service, cemented by homicidal initiation.

The region's loss of innocence during the Troubles finds its expression in the baby faces cruelly twisted by fate and hatred. The film's bookend scenes, with Gary's unconditionally loving younger brother, underline the irony, and after all, Gary's something of a spring chicken himself. Director Yann Demange and screenwriter Gregory Burke (the prominent Scottish playwright of "Black Watch") twist the knife by serving Gary with constant reminders of boyishness corrupted, from his clueless C.O. ("I'm a bit of a new boy myself") to the rifle-armed boy who leads Gary down the rabbit hole during the riot to teenage Provisional Irish Republican Army recruit Sean (Barry Keoghan), who marks Gary for death but struggles to finish the deed.

The film's earlier scenes, establishing the madness of the Troubles and encouraging reflection on their psychological nuances, prove strongest, but even when "'71" definitively turns into a thriller (and before, in the bravura riot sequence), Demange shows deeply impressive technical skill. O'Connell resonates as a victim of circumstance collecting emotional scars, and the picture handily maintains suspense right up to what the film has in common with the Troubles: an inevitably tragic, though not specifically foregone, conclusion.

Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, and language throughout. One hour, 39 minutes.

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