Movie Reviews: 71, The Maze Runner, The Calling

’71 ****

Movie Reviews: 71, The Maze Runner, The Calling

Set in Belfast in the early years of the Troubles, ’71 (15) centres on Private Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell), a British squaddie recently arrived in Northern Ireland as part of the British government’s attempts to maintain law and order. Gary barely has time to stow his gear under his bunk before he takes part in a ‘routine’ house search in a Nationalist part of Belfast, an operation that suddenly erupts into a full-scale riot.

Separated from his colleagues, untrained in all but the very basics of soldiering, and entirely ignorant of Belfast’s geography, Gary must find his way back to base before the IRA gunmen who are hunting him track him down. Written by Gregory Burke and directed by Yann Demange in his feature-length debut, ’71 is a tense thriller that broadens out from its initial man-on-the-run premise to incorporate sub-plots that weave in British army intelligence black ops and the inexorable rise of the Provisional IRA.

Some Irish viewers might assume that they’d find it hard to sympathise with the squaddie’s plight, but Jack O’Connell’s sympathetic performance in the central role is superb as the bluff squaddie grows increasingly disoriented, vulnerable and terrified. There’s a strong support cast too, including David Wilmot, Richard Dormer, Martin McCann and Sam Reid, while Demange’s taut direction underpins the claustrophobic tone as the characters twist and turn through the run-down red-brick warren of Belfast’s back streets. All told, it’s a formidable debut from Demange which further burnishes O’Connell’s reputation as a rising star.

Another young man finds himself running for his life in The Maze Runner (12A), which is adapted from the young adult novel by James Dashner. Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) wakes up one day in ‘the Glade’, a pastoral setting fully enclosed by huge walls and set at the heart of a vast maze.

As Thomas gradually regains his memory in the company of fellow Glade-dwellers Alby (Aml Ameen), Minho (Ki Hong Lee), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Gally (Will Poulter), he learns that escape is possible from the Glade, but only for those maze-runners willing to risk what appears to be certain death. Fans of classic sci-fi such as Logan’s Run and The Running Man (and, more recently, The Hunger Games) will immediately recognise the set-up, but The Maze Runner, which also borrows from The Lord of the Flies and Peter Pan, is a perfectly fine dystopian teenage sci-fi in its own right.

The setting of the Glade and its mediaeval-style village is marvellously realised, and Dylan O’Brien is engagingly intense and moody as he finds himself immersed in power-struggle between the conservative approach of Gally and the more progressive-thinking Alby and Newt, with Ameen, Brodie-Sangster and Poulter all contributing powerful performances. Director Wes Ball keeps a tight rein on proceedings as the story ricochets from one revelation to another, although the latter stages do spiral out of control as the closeted characters begin to engage with the wider world. For the most part, though, it’s very enjoyable hokum.

Adapted from Inger Ashe Wolfe’s novel, The Calling (15A) centres on Hazel Micallef (Susan Sarandon), the sheriff of a small Ontario town that hasn’t had a murder case in four years. Suddenly, it has two: an old woman’s head has been almost severed and, in a seemingly unconnected case, a man’s stomach has been removed.

Gruesome stuff, and all the evidence seems to point to Simon (Christopher Heyerdahl), the new man in town with the kind eyes, soft voice and a cure for all your ailments. Unfortunately, Sheriff Micallef is a woman with a number of complaints, physical and emotional, a pill-popping, flask-nipping woman so numbed to her immediate surroundings that she’s not entirely sure what she should be feeling as she goes about her job — a combination that leaves her personally and professionally vulnerable to a charismatic killer.

It’s a tough role, and at times Sarandon is reduced to announcing her emotional state by the way she whips off her sunglasses; meanwhile, Sarandon and Ellen Burstyn, playing Hazel’s live-in nagging mother, struggle to create any kind of chemistry, and only Donald Sutherland’s world-weary priest manages to garner our sympathy.

Directed by Jason Stone, this low-budget thriller is brave enough to spare us the worst excesses of the serial-killer flick, bypassing the usual clichés and investing time in exploring the experience of a female detective struggling to be taken seriously by her male boss. While it’s admirable in terms of its ambition, however, The Calling is rather less successful in its execution.

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