The Wall (2017)
This isn’t war. It’s a game.
With the contemporary blockbuster becoming more and more expensive to produce, it’s easy to see the financial appeal of the single-location (movie) structure — heck, all you need is a charismatic actor and a pretty tight script. Although this simplistic model has proven successful for films such as Locke (2013) and Buried (2010), it still remains a tough nut to get right. Thankfully skilled director Doug Liman, Edge of Tomorrow (2014), knows how to hold an audience’s attention, his back-to-basics thriller, The Wall, a masterful exercise in suspense, the filmmaker pitting a couple of American snipers against a notorious Iraqi shooter nicknamed ‘The Angel of Death’ or ‘The Ghost’ — an adversary responsible for countless U.S. casualties.
Set in 2007, at the close of the Iraq war (President Bush having just declared victory), two U.S. soldiers — a sniper, Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews (WWE superstar John Cena) and his spotter, Sergeant Allen ‘Ize’ Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) — are sent to investigate a distress call at a pipeline construction site in the desert of Iraq, where several Western contractors are found dead. Roasting in the blistering sun, the camouflaged men survey the murder scene carefully, Isaac convinced that the workers were taken-out by a highly skilled sniper. Matthews, however, isn’t so certain, even though they’d been camping out there for over 20 hours and had seen next to no movement.
Sick and tired of playing the waiting game, the impatient Matthews takes his camo gear off and casually strolls out into the open to take a closer look. About a minute later a shot is fired, Matthews taking a hit and falling straight to the ground, where he begins to bleed out, fully exposed on the gravel. Putting his life at risk, Isaac rushes out to save his fallen comrade and is consequentially shot in the leg. Taking refuge behind the remnants of a recently destroyed structure (where he basically remains for the rest of the picture), Isaac uses a damaged two-way to call for help. A voice responds but within minutes Isaac realizes that he’s speaking to the Iraqi man who’s trying to end his life, the faceless assassin taunting our wounded front man, who quickly discovers that he’ll need to use his wits if he wishes to survive.
If anything, the script by Dwain Worrell — a key writer on the iffy Marvel-Netflix series Iron Fist (2017) — feels more like a ‘basic premise’ rather than a fully fleshed-out plot, the narrative sidestepping politics in order to focus on a snap-tight game of cat and mouse, its lack of padding keeping proceedings nice and tight. With that said, some of the flick’s best bits are its most far-fetched — for instance, there’s a sequence that sees Isaac try to pinpoint the enemy’s exact location by keeping him busy over the radio, the wounded soldier listening out for surrounding sounds (i.e. clanging metal), in hopes that the rouge sniper will slip up and give away his position. It’s also handy that our anonymous antagonist happens to speak pretty good English, this educated assassin eventually explaining his ‘eye for an eye’ motivations, even quoting Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ at one point.
Shot in anamorphic 16mm — near Edwards Air Force Base in Kern County, California — cinematographer Roman Vasyanov, Fury (2014), ensures that this lean, gritty thriller draws viewers in with a ‘you’re there’ sorta quality, whilst utilizing the limited space — most of what we see is through Isaac’s long-range rifle lens or the gaps in his protective wall. Similarly, director Liman reveals more and more about his characters as the story gradually progresses — for example, the Islamic sharpshooter winds up psychologically manipulating the injured Ize into openly speaking about an incident that still haunts him.
Performance-wise, The Wall is essentially a three-man show. Pro wrestler-turned-movie star John Cena, The Marine (2006), proves that he can act, even if Cena spends the majority of the flick playing dead, this leaving Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kick-Ass (2010), to do the bulk of the heavy lifting. Rising to the challenge, the British-born actor excels as your ‘everyman,’ a guy trying to stay alive under dire conditions, our protagonist combating the heat, dehydration and exhaustion, on top of the gunman. Alas, given that Taylor-Johnson’s Ize is on screen for the entire 88-minute runtime, his character still comes across as a little one-dimensional. Last of all, Laith Nakli, Amira & Sam (2014), is good as the deadly sniper Juba; whether he’s impersonating an American officer or simply trying to probe Isaac, Nakli’s voicework wholly sells the drama.
Finishing in a provocative and unforeseen way, The Wall works as a no-frills action-thriller, one that reinforces the complexity of war and the idea that there are no good guys or bad guys in warfare, just dudes trying to stay alive.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Mr. Movie