Thankfully not a film about Trump’s intentions regarding the US/Mexico border, The Wall is, in fact, a tense, psychological war movie from director Doug Liman.
The Wall is essentially a three-hander (though in truth the vast chunk of its running time sees it operate more or less as a two-hander) between two US sergeants; the ‘spotter’ Allen ‘Eyes’ Isaac (Aaron-Taylor-Johnson) and the sniper Shane Matthews (the man mountain that is WWE wrestler John Cena), and an unseen enemy marksman, the mythical ‘Juba’ (voiced by Laith Nakli). The two Americans have been sent to investigate the massacre of some civilian contractors and their military liaison at a pipeline construction site in the desert of Iraq and the film commences at the end of their overwatch whereupon Matthews gives the site the all clear, deeming it safe to approach. As he proceeds towards the site, Matthews is shot and injured, forcing Isaac to take cover behind the film’s titular dilapidated, crumbling wall. From there, the panicked soldier must try to figure out a rescue plan for himself and his injured comrade, whilst at the same time conduct a battle of wits over the radio with the relentless, calculating Iraqi sniper whose accurate, deadly marksmanship has made him a legend that the American military lives in fear of.
It’s surprising that the 52-year-old director of such big hitters as The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow and the recent American Made is responsible for The Wall because (and I don’t mean this as a criticism) this feels like the work of a young film school graduate, an extension perhaps of his graduation project. There’s something intrinsically low key about The Wall‘s intimate set-up, and something independently minded about its overall desire to subvert audience expectations that makes it a surprise move from an established action director like Liman. The film’s inherent youthfulness actually stems from Afro-American playwright Dwain Worrell, who was teaching English in China when he sold his screenplay on spec to Amazon Studios in 2014. From there, it appeared on that year’s Black List for most liked unproduced screenplays and, perhaps off the back of that year’s American Sniper, the film was given the green light.
I haven’t actually seen American Sniper, but I imagine this film to be more up my street than Eastwood’s offering. Jingoism is not on offer here; the unseen enemy sniper continually asks his prey just what they are still doing in his country now that George W Bush has declared the war to be over – a question that the dutiful ‘regular Joe’ soldier Isaac is unable to answer. Worrell draws on his playwright credentials to deliver a taut study of human interaction, with Isaac and ‘Juba’ circling around one another like chess grandmasters under the baking desert sun. It’s an eerie film that plays to our natural fear of a hidden menace lurking somewhere on the horizon determined to do us harm, and Liman captures both the tough conditions and the edgy atmosphere with a suitably visceral, terse flair.
Of the cast, Aaron Taylor-Johnson delivers a fine and often underplayed performance which is rewarding when you consider an actor’s natural tendency to showboat when they’re effectively both the film’s lead and the only person on screen for significant amounts of time. Being completely ignorant of the world of WWE, I confess to knowing absolutely nothing of John Cena’s previous career and was only familiar with him from his small role in the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler comedy Sisters prior to this, but I will say he is very competent and believable in his role and a far better actor than Hulk Hogan proved to be with the glut of dismal family comedies the wrestler appeared in during the late ’80s and ’90s when I was a child and I last gave a damn about the sport. It’s also amazing how much of a character both the script and the actor Laith Nakli can create with just a vocal performance, delivering a truly unsettling, remorseless bogeyman figure.
At just a little shy of 90 minutes, The Wall knows not to outstay its welcome and for that I am grateful. The ending may divide opinion, and it’s perhaps fair to say there’s an element of the Carpenteresque film school B movie about it, but personally, I liked it and found it packed just the right amount of punch.