GIVEN the political, religious and emotional complexities of the Northern Ireland Troubles, it’s surprising how many decent films have been made about the subject over the years.
Director: Yann Demange
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Sam Reid, Sean Harris
Alan Clarke’s short drama Elephant, Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday and Steve McQueen’s Hunger remain the high water marks, serving up experimental, form-advancing interpretations of the turmoil that grappled with its myriad horrors and absurdities without drawing trite conclusions. There have been a handful of thoughtful thrillers too – Code Unknown, Resurrection Man, The Boxer among them – that have dramatised different aspects of the conflict in trenchant and illuminating ways, enough, at least, to ensure that cinematic misfires such as In The Name of the Father haven’t defined how the issue has come to be represented on screen.
To the list of good films can now be added ’71, the debut feature from Black Watch playwright Gregory Burke and Paris-born/London-raised promo and TV director Yann Demange. Mostly set over the course of 24 turbulent hours in Belfast during which a newly deployed squaddie gets left behind by his regiment after a street clash gets violently out of hand, the film uses its titular year as a context-setting signifier of a transitional period in the conflict: one in which the bloodshed started to escalate and the external perceptions of the problem started to change. The power of the film, though, is that it exists in a sort of nightmarish hinterland where the reality of what’s happening on the neighbouring Loyalist- and Republican-controlled streets of West Belfast, in the houses, and in the backrooms of pubs and working men’s clubs, hasn’t yet filtered through to the British squaddies being sent there ostensibly to keep the peace.
Our entry point into this world is Gary Hook (Starred Up’s Jack O’Connell), a young, soldier fresh out of basic training and unexpectedly dispatched to Northern Ireland. Conscientious and observant, he’s not as green as some of his fellow recruits, but his instinctual smarts haven’t quite prepared him for a situation in which his immediate superiors harbour naïve preconceptions about the severity of the situation, the hostility of the locals and the insidious, behind the scenes power grabs already at play. As depicted here, the army is very much on the back foot: mocked by their colleagues in the RUC for getting lost en route to a house raid or for expressing shock at the brutality of their tactics; stoned by residents who view them as state oppressors, even without their riot gear. When Hook’s first patrol outside the barracks results in panicked gunfire, chaos in the streets and a sudden moment of shocking violence (something that will prove an ominous sign of things to come), he finds himself on the run from murderous Republicans and nefarious Loyalists alike.
The thriller element of the film kicks into high gear here. Demange stages set pieces with an urgency that makes use of the post-Greengrass vogue for claustrophobic, verité-style realism, but he also imbues them with some of the old-school leanness of Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort, as well as some of the fluid camera work of Kathryn Bigelow’s films (and not just the more obvious likes of The Hurt Locker; there’s a heart-pounding footchase through the back-alleys and derelict houses of Belfast that recalls Point Break).
What’s fascinating about the film, though, is that Demange and Burke jack up the tension by subverting the stranger-in-a-foreign-land aspect of the plot in ways that smartly and subtly tap into the specifics of the situation. As Hook finds himself encountering people on both sides of the ideological divide – sometimes fortuitously, sometimes not – his odyssey becomes one of dawning realisations that the narratives that serve each side bear little relation to the truth at hand. One character’s simplistic assessments of the army as “Posh c**** telling thick c**** to kill poor c****” is undercut, for instance, by a team of plain clothes intelligence officers (led by Sean Harris) wielding far more power with the higher-ups than the upper-crust officer in command of Hook’s regiment. As the night progresses, the relationships within and between both sides are also revealed to have a mutable quality that suggests neither cause has one set agenda.
As the everyman caught in the middle of this, O’Connell is typically fierce and conflicted, doing strong, measured work to show us someone wrestling with real world moral dilemmas as his own survival instincts kick in. O’Connell can do the callow youth-to-man transition with his eyes closed (he’ll be doing it again for Angelina Jolie as the star of her forthcoming film Unbreakable). But he’s got such a livewire, in-the-moment presence that he brings something new – or at least something plausibly unpredictable – to his roles. Hook could easily have been a cipher; O’Connell makes him a flesh-and-blood character, in a conflict where flesh-and-blood becomes an unfortunate currency.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (12A)
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Starring: Megan Fox, Will Arnet, William Fichtner, Whoopi Goldberg
The heroes in a half-shell make a return to the big screen, their first live-action outing since the ludicrously profitable low-budget original in the 90s conspicuously failed to develop into a cinematic franchise of any note (there were two rapidly produced and swiftly forgotten sequels). That, of course, was back when Hollywood was still trying to figure out how to adapt comic books. Perhaps as a result, the irreverent indie spirit of Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman’s original comics managed to find its way into that first iteration, ensuring these pizza-munching, Renaissance-referencing, martial-arts-practicing superheroes were endearingly off-beat.
Sadly, this reboot doesn’t really make much of a case for bringing them (or their “Cowabunga” catchphrase) back – although in truth they’ve never really been away, thanks to ongoing cartoons, animated films, comic books and endless merchandising.
Pitched squarely as an origins story, the new film finds the CGI-enhanced Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Donatello taking their first tentative steps from the sewers of New York into its crime-ridden streets as part of a Batman-style mission to surreptitiously keep its denizens safe. This brings them into contact with April O’Neil (Megan Fox), an aspiring crime reporter whose determination to break a major news story puts her and these wisecracking, hormonally charged reptilian ninjas in mortal danger.
None of which should really count against it given the series started life as a playful riff on the self-serious tone that initiated the trend for psychologically damaged superheroes (something from which so many of today’s comic book movies draw). No, the problem is that it’s just not silly enough or funny enough. Where Marvel’s recent Guardians of the Galaxy did a great job of telling a goofy story with a bit of an edge to it, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has been cursed with producer Michael Bay’s tone-deaf ear for comedy. Watching the Turtles yearn for Megan Fox should be charming not creepy and their one-liners and pop culture references should also be much sharper. On the plus side, the design of the Turtles is fine, but about midway through, director Jonathan Leibesman succumbs to the city-levelling proclivities of his big-name producer and starts flinging money at the screen with ever grander explosions to hurry along the needless plot convolutions about arch enemy Shredder and his plans to hold New York to ransom.