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By all standards, Jack O’Connell is having a big year. His name was attached to a flurry of Star Wars casting rumors. He delivered yet another eye-catching performance, this time in the prison drama Starred Up. And oh by the way, he secured the lead role in Angelina Jolie’s heroic Unbroken, a WWII drama that is poised for a lengthy Oscar run. Yes, it’s a good time to be Jack O’Connell, and an even better time to get to know him if he’s not yet on your radar.
In order to catch up with O’Connell (no relation), I checked out ’71, a period war thriller he and director Yann Demange brought to the Toronto International Film Festival. A sort of "behind-enemy-lines" slow burner, the film stars O’Connell as Private Hook, a noble soldier ordered to assist on a mission into burned-out Belfast, Northern Ireland. Almost immediately, it becomes clear that things aren’t what they seem, and when a riot breaks out, Hook and a fellow soldier are separated from their platoon and forced to find a way to survive in hostile territories.
Don’t expect a Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone-style war machine, however. If O’Connell is responsible for anything with ’71, its that he ushers in the era of a new age of action hero. If he fires a gun at any point in ’71 outside of an early military training session, I don’t remember it. When he finally takes a life, it’s almost by accident, and it carries real regret.
This might not be your father’s action movie. But that doesn’t make it any less compelling.
Jack O’Connell seems poised for stardom. He’s rugged, boxy, and built for an action career. His nose forms a natural arrow that cuts through tense situations, and he has a broad forehead that sits atop his tough-guy squint. He passes the eye test when it comes to action protagonists, and easily positions ’71 as a potential war-time thriller.
If he’s going to continue to make the leap to stardom, though, it will be in the strong, silent and stoic mold. The script likely dictates it, but O’Connell doesn’t come across as the charismatic wisecracker, the Kurt Russell type of antihero who takes as much pride in a one-liner as he does in landing a roundhouse. This quality likely will serve him well in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, where he plays POW and Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini. The trailer for Jolie’s drama suggested several torturous scenes for O’Connell. And a scene in ’71 where he has to receive stitches from a benevolent physician shows he can grunt, scream and weep with the best of them.
From what I’ve seen so far, Jack O’Connell has screen presence. I’m just not sure yet if he has range.