As the opening titles tell us, it’s 2007 and the war in Iraq is winding down. The president has declared victory, and arrangements are being made to leave. But some of our military remains, including two American army snipers, Staff Sergeant Matthews (John Cena) and his spotter, Sergeant Allan Issac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
In this taut, ninety minute war film, The Wall from director Doug Liman, the two soldiers have answered a distress call from a small group of civilian contractors, there to help construct a pipeline and get the country’s economy back into gear. They’re under attack from an enemy sniper who is picking them off, one by one.
When the film begins, the two military men have already answered the call. They’re there on site, hiding under camouflage from a safe distance, lying in the same position for more than twenty hours. From what they can tell, and from what they’ve been looking at for the whole twenty hours, the contractors are dead, their bodies lying lifelessly by the unfinished pipeline. There’s a crumbling stone wall in the distance, the remains of an ancient Iraqi building perhaps, and Issac is concerned that there might still be an enemy sniper hiding behind it, patiently waiting for someone to appear. Matthews is not so sure. “War’s gone,” the staff sergeant says. “They got the memo.”
Unable to rest in the same position for any longer, Matthews stands up, stretches, and decides he’s going to walk down to the scene to collect the radios of the dead contractors. “No way Hajji is sitting there behind that wall,” he states. And he’s right; there’s no one behind that wall. But there is someone hiding in a different area, and while walking away, after twenty hours of nothing, sniper fire hits its target, and the soldier goes down.
Isaac leaps to his wounded staff sergeant’s rescue and runs to his aid, but the sniper fires again. There are three expert shots, each hitting its intended target; one to Isaac’s radio antenna, one to his water bottle and one to his leg. Managing to drag himself behind that decaying wall, Issac takes cover, and that’s where the film really begins.
Less an action picture and more a psychological drama, yet always exciting, The Wall depicts what could be viewed as the thin line between enemies; the weak and decrepit wall itself perhaps a metaphor for the defenses of the two opposing sides crumbling down. When trying to make a distress call from his weak radio, the voice on the other end turns out not to be American but that of the sniper, hiding somewhere out there, able to communicate directly with the soldier on a local frequency. “You Americans, you think you know it all,” the enemy declares. “You are the one who comes to another man’s country. From where I’m sitting, you very much look like the terrorist.”
The setup and the setting could easily have been the groundwork for a play, with Sergeant Isaac, pinned behind a stone wall that is slowly falling apart, The majority of the film’s dialog is a conversation between the American and the off screen, disembodied voice of the English speaking Iraqi. We learn that the enemy sniper was once a school teacher who was in his class when the bombs dropped and killed many of his students. The wall that temporarily protects Issac is itself the remains of what was once a school.
More for his amusement than anything else, the educated sniper engages in references to Robert Frost, Shakespeare and from time to time even quotes Edgar Allan Poe. It’s as if he’s playing a game with the American, getting him to reveal things about himself, toying with him as if lulling the army sergeant into a false sense of security while simply passing the time until the sniper can eventually take his shot. The Iraqi is in no rush. No one’s coming to the rescue. And all the while, Issac’s wounded staff sergeant remains lying still, in full view of the sniper, slowly dying under the baking desert sun.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson might be the most unrecognizable face with a recognizable name in movies today. Like the camouflage his character wears during the opening moments, he hides in plain sight, morphing from one performance to another without anyone realizing who it is they’re watching. As he writhes in agony behind that wall, attempting with his knife to pry the bullet that tore into his knee, it’s hard to see the teenager that was once Kick-Ass, or the man who played a young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy, or even the power-gifted Quicksilver in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and most won’t realize it’s him until the end credits roll. Here, the English born actor thoroughly convinces as American soldier, Issac, and carries practically the whole film on his shoulders. He’s Hollywood’s number one chameleon, and it’s extraordinary how he makes it work every time.
As director of several large scale thrillers, such as the The Bourne Identity and more recently, Edge of Tomorrow, there’s something refreshing about Doug Liman making a widescreen film as small and as short as The Wall, yet managing to achieve an edge-of-your-seat nail-biter that is every bit as engaging and powerful as something several sizes bigger. At a time when all action flicks are over-stuffed with a bloated running length, Liman shows how less really can still be more. In fact, with minimal action and lengthy dialog exchanges that keep you leaning forward in your seat for practically the run of the film, The Wall is a more exciting thriller than most.
But that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be leaving the theatre satisfied. Perceptions of what is traditional in a good guy versus a bad guy war film don’t apply; at least, not in the way mainstream audiences might want. And don’t jump to conclusions that you think you’ll know what will happen, either. But as you look back and ponder its meaning and what you’ve just witnessed, even though you may feel – wrongly – that the carpet was pulled from beneath you in those final moments, there really wasn’t any other way to conclude things. And in the end, that’s really the strength behind The Wall.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 90 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)