★★★★★ | 71

Getting left behind by your Army platoon when you go on a dangerous military mission is not exactly a novel idea in the movies, but this new version with rising star Jack O’Connell, this feature debut from TV director Yann Demange is certainly one of the best.

Set in Belfast, Northern Ireland at the height of ‘the Troubles’ and just one year before the infamous ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre in 1972, O’Connell plays orphan Gary Hook who had joined the Army as a route to being independent and self-sufficient. He had expected a cushy first assignment and so like the rest of his platoon is shocked to be suddenly deployed instead to be part of the peacekeeping forces in Ulster.

The first house raid backing up the police in a hostile Catholic area of Belfast that Hook’s unit takes part in, goes dreadfully wrong and the lieutenant in charge orders a hasty retreat when the large crowd of onlookers start getting very violent. In the mayhem to hot-foot it out of there in one piece, Hook and fellow soldier Thommo are left behind. When the two men are cornered by members of the IRA, Thommo is shot dead at point blank but Hook manages to escape into the darkness.

Totally lost in the warren of backstreets of a hostile alien city the young soldier tries to find a way back to the barracks but meanwhile he is being hunted not just by his Commanding Officer, but also by a covert British Intelligence Unit who are anxious that he doesn’t stumble into any of their operations, and also by two fractions of the IRA who are fighting amongst themselves in how to resolve the situation once they capture him.

As Hook makes his way around avoiding flying Molotov cocktails seemingly hurled everywhere in the scary streets full of upturned vehicles set on fire, he is aware of being very much alone. He falls into the hands of a young kid who takes him to the HQ of the UDF the Protestant paramilitaries.

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It’s obvious that come to the final showdown when Hook is finally reached by one or all of the parties out to locate him that there will be more mayhem and shootings in this conflict that never shows the slightest indication that it would ever cease.

Full marks to cinematographer Tat Redcliffe and production designer Chris Oddy for making the streets of Blackburn (in the North of the UK) standing in for Belfast, look so utterly menacing and full of fear. It’s a very impressive story and is directed with such remarkable style that it earned Demarge a British Independent Film Award for his work.

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It is, however, young Jack O’Connell’s dynamic performance as the scared young soldier immersed in a bloody struggle that he neither understood or could even relate to, that makes this movie so very compelling. His fight was for his own life and to simply ensure that he would survive and be there to support his kid brother still trapped in the Orphanage back home. O’Connell’s talents lie in convincing us with his steadfast bravado and his powerful physical presence, yet somehow at the same time never letting us forget he’s still a big kid at heart. This role follows his outstanding performance in the prison drama ‘Starred Up’ and with his starring role in Angelina Jolie’s ‘Unbroken’ about to be released, this young British actor is clearly destined to be one of THE next batch of Hollywood’s leading men.

This review was first published in Dec 2014

About the author: Roger Walker-Dack
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