A film review by Craig J. Koban May 20, 2017

THE WALL jjj
 

2017, R, 81 mins.

 

Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Isaac  /  John Cena as Matthews  /  Laith Nakli as Juba

Directed by Doug Liman  /  Written by Dwain Worrell

Not to be confused with THE GREAT WALL from earlier this year, THE WALL is a new American War film that's a frequently masterful exercise in minimalist filmmaking economy.

Featuring three actors (one of which appears in voice only off camera) and containing a singular setting throughout its taut and lean 81 minutes, the film is not so much a war film or a commentary on the nature of war, per se, as much as it is a chillingly suspenseful outdoor survival thriller that just happens to take place in a real world conflict.  Dripping with an abundance of foreboding atmosphere, THE WALL does a bravura job of evoking not only the senselessness of war, but also the emotional toil that war has on frightened young soldiers. 

The film is also a wonderful change of pace for director Doug Liman, whom previously has established himself in large scale, big budget, Hollywood blockbuster action films (THE BOURNE IDENTITY, MR. AND MRS. SMITH, and the criminally underrated EDGE OF TOMORROW).  Using an exceedingly stripped down filmmaking aesthetic that caters to the film's sense of startling immediacy and verisimilitude, Liman does wonders with THE WALL's incredibly limited locals and uses that to his very advantage.  Even though the film has a scale that's positively dwarfed by countless other war dramas, Liman manages to nevertheless convey the mad brutality of combat on a deeply intimate level.  Very few other recent genre examples that I've seen have as much of an enthralling "you-are-there" sense of ambience as much as this one. 

 

 

There's not much of an overarching narrative here.  That's not a criticism.  Instead, THE WALL feels more like an insular three-man, one act play than a traditional war movie with a definitive beginning, middle and end.  Set in 2007 during the war in Iraq, the film introduces us two American soldiers, Matthews and Isaac (John Cena and Aaron Taylor-Johnson respectively) that have been tasked with investigating a specific stretch of oil pipeline that's been under siege by a pesky and very well hidden Iraqi sniper (voiced by Laith Nakli).  The pair have been monitoring their assigned area for well over 22 hours in the sun drenched desert without being able to spot anyone or anything.  Matthews decides that enough is enough and proceeds to come out of camouflaged cover and investigate the site on foot, much to the chagrin of his spotter/partner. 

Matthews makes some inroads, but begins to smell that something is certainly off as he's collecting the radios of multiple dead soldiers.  Without warning, he's shot and mortally wounded by an apparent sniper, which springs Isaac into swift action.  Unfortunately, Isaac is also quickly wounded in the leg by the same apparent sniper, but he does manage to flee from his fallen comrade and into cover against a nearby wall (hence, the film's title).  Without any ability to run, let alone walk, Isaac realizes that he may be bunkered down behind the wall until he can radio in for help, but when he tries to contact reinforcements he shockingly discovers that the sniper that shot both him and Matthews has commandeered the radio signal and is now playing cerebral mind games with his prey.  Worst of all, he's the dreaded sniper that's guilty of perpetrating most of the killing that Matthews and Isaac were sent in to investigate.  What then commences is an ultimate battle of wills between Issac and his attacker, with the latter frustratingly having the complete upper hand at every waking moment. 

I generally love films made within tight limitations.  THE WALL ostensibly takes place at, yes, the aforementioned wall and hones in almost exclusively on Isaac as he desperately tries to find a manner of locating the sniper and thwarting his attacks.  Ultimately, THE WALL is an exercise in nail biting peril that does a persuasive job of cementing viewers right up alongside Isaac as he struggles to stay alive.  Some of the film's finest moments occur at poor Isaac's expense, as the sniper mercilessly taunts him with sadistic remarks when he's not trying to maintain a falsely civil exchange with him.  Isaac's plight is nightmarish, to say the least, seeing as he has to contend with a partner that's dying and baking in the midday sun (leaving cover and going to his aid would be a death sentence), but he also has to deal with his own wounds while resisting the sniper's constant bickering over the radio to gain a psychological advantage.  Isaac's body is broken, but his mind becomes as equally broken the longer he stays in communication with this psycho. 

Liman's technically assured and refreshingly restrained direction is a pitch perfect match to the film's relative plainness.  It would have been so bloody easy for a lesser action director to drum up the stylistic and editorial tricks to artificial levels, but Liman's less-is-more measured approach helps ground audience members more systematically.  He never breaks up sequences into a hyperactive barrage of micro-cuts with swooshing and headache inducing camera work.  No, Liman makes usage of static set ups and long takes to create the eerie sense of the mortal danger that Isaac finds himself in.  On paper, THE WALL is nothing more than a cat and mouse game between enemy combatants, but Liman elevates and enriches this material by getting into the headspaces of his characters and evoking the environmental dangers of the desert as well.  Isaac could just as easily die of dehydration as much as he could his gun wound...or via another shot from his attacker.

Again, the atmosphere here is like a tertiary character in THE WALL, and Liman frames the glaring harshness of the terrain with a brow beating bleakness and despair.  The thanklessly lived-in and textured performances blend in perfectly with Liman's understated direction.  Pro wrestler John Cena, even though he isn't in the film much, is solid and wholeheartedly credible as his grizzled soldier; like Dwayne Johnson, Cena seems equal to the task of partaking in action films and comedies with relative ease (see his amusing cameo in TRAINWRECK).  THE WALL is Aaron Taylor-Johnson's film through and through, and coming off of his tour de force work in last year's NOCTURNAL ANIMALS he once again emerges here giving another exceptional chameleon-like performance as his beleaguered military man.  This is an especially tricky role, seeing as it forces Taylor-Johnson to play it in the prone position for 60-plus minutes; it's not only a commanding piece of performance physicality, but the actor also has to plausibly tap into the fractured psyche of this poor soul that has death breathing down his door.   

If THE WALL were to have any weakness then it would be in its final 15 or so minutes, during which time Liman seems to lose the overall haunting sense of tension filled momentum that he was generating beforehand, which all builds to a conclusion that will arguably polarize many.  That, and there are moments involving the radio conversations between the sniper and Isaac that try to dabble into the geo-politics of America's involvement in the Middle East that comes off as somewhat obvious and forced.  Thankfully, THE WALL never really tries to be a sobering indictment of war, nor is he interested in broader notions of what enlisted men do what they do for God and country.  More or less, Liman's film is, for the most part, a sensationally engineered and executed tale of a small scale struggle set amidst a much larger conflict.  It also never wears out its welcome (its lean and mean running time feels just right) to needlessly become a bloated and self-indulgent war thriller (Liman also absconds away from other standard action film accouterments like a bombastic music score, which there is none to be found here until the end credits).  

During a relative summer film season of mega pricey and overproduced franchise efforts and sequels, the scaled down veracity of THE WALL is a most refreshing surprise. 

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