Packaged and marketed as a taut wartime action film, but playing more like a low-key, two-hander horror flick, director Doug Liman’s The Wall is a satisfying, unpretentious, slyly metaphorical bit of entertainment. It’s slight – the kind of film that suggests the leads and director did it as a lark while they all had a few days off – but assured and consistently suspenseful.
It’s 2007, shortly after the supposed end to the American war in Iraq, and a pair of American snipers have been scoping out the scene of a massacre at an oil pipeline that’s under construction. Spotter Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) thinks the killer might still be out there, but his triggerman, Sgt. Shane Matthews (John Cena), has gotten tired of waiting silently in the bush and decides to investigate. Sure enough, Isaac turns out to be right and the soldiers are quickly pinned down on either side of a crumbling wall by a psychopathic Iraqi sniper who plans on toying with the pair before ultimately killing them.
Liman (Edge of Tomorrow, The Bourne Identity, Go) returns not only to the bare bones basics of his early independent film work, but also mounts the simplest film of his career. It’s a film that viewers familiar with Liman’s work likely won’t think the director has in him, much in the same way that no one expected comedian Jordan Peele to make Get Out the runaway horror success of the year thus far. It’s not as good as Peele’s film by any stretch, but The Wall boasts the same kind of stripped down, subtextual, and terrifying kind of feeling.
The cat and mouse games between Isaac and the sniper begin not even ten minutes into the film, and the goal is to take out the bad guy and save his brother-in-arms. Much like Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire earlier this year, both heroes are wounded early on and have a limited amount of time before they bleed out, dehydrate, or make a life ending mistake amid their hellish, sun-baked surroundings. Throughout, there’s no music to tell audiences how to feel; only the whizzing of bullets and shuffling of dirt beneath the characters’ feet. Cena’s fine, seemingly knowing he’s been cast since he literally played a similar character in The Marine with an equally meat-headed attitude, but the film mostly belongs to Johnson’s Isaac trying to assess their situation across 80 intense minutes.
There are some twists that I’m trying to dance around, but it spoils nothing to say that at a certain point the Iraqi marksman (voiced quite memorably with villainous aplomb by Laith Nakli) turns out to be the kind of psycho who likes to talk a lot and confuse our heroes. While that’s a pretty standard cliché, everything about the killer’s bizarre mythos and the heroes’ situation as portrayed in screenwriter Dwain Worrell’s sharp, but simple script boasts a great deal of criticism for American foreign policy. The killer hides in a literal trash heap comprised of detritus left behind by the multinational corporations. Isaac finds his only protection in a crumbling wall that the Americans were sent to destroy in the first place. At every turn, Isaac and Shane are sabotaged by their own adherence to protocol and belief in superstitions and biases that often cloud their reason. This is a story of soldiers in peril, but unlike most films about the American military these days, Liman’s has the guts to push things in a less jingoistic direction.
Without that, The Wall might come off as a bit exploitative and even slighter than it is, but here those beats enhance Johnson’s thoroughly game performance and Liman’s sparse mood and tone. Viewers might initially think they’re watching an action film, but they’re actually watching what would have made for a great Tales from the Crypt movie if The Wall had been produced twenty years ago. The Wall wasn’t what I expected it to be, but I appreciate it just the same for what it is and what it’s trying to do.