Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Doug Liman, Drama, Iraq, John Cena, Review, Sniper, Thriller
D: Doug Liman / 89m
Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, Laith Nakli
We’re back in Black List territory again with The Wall, another screenplay that has gained a reputation of quality thanks to its inclusion on said list. A first-time script by playwright Dwain Worrell, the story has two US Army soldiers – Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews (Cena), who is a sniper, and his spotter, Sergeant Allen Isaac (Taylor-Johnson) – on overwatch at a stretch of pipeline deep in the Iraqi desert in 2007. The team of contractors working on the pipeline have all been killed. Isaac thinks it’s the work of a highly skilled sniper, while Matthews isn’t so convinced. After twenty-two hours of waiting and watching, Matthews decides that it’s safe to come out of hiding and take a closer look. Closer inspection of the bodies reveals Isaac is right, but the knowledge comes too late; Matthews is shot and wounded. Isaac rushes to help him, but in the process he too is wounded, and he’s forced to take cover behind a flimsy wall built of bricks and mortar.
With Matthews lying prone out in the open, Isaac tries to radio for help but his antenna is busted. Soon, he receives a message over the duo’s comms system. At first it seems that the pair will be rescued, but Isaac is horrified to learn that the messenger is in fact an Iraqi sniper called Juba (Nakli), and the man responsible for the deaths of the pipeline workers, and his and Matthews’ injuries. What follows is a game of cat-and-mouse as Isaac tries to work out where exactly Juba is hidden, and how he can get himself and Matthews out of there alive. While he does, Juba engages him in conversation and tries to get inside Isaac’s head using information he’s gleaned from listening in on the duo’s chatter while they were on overwatch. In time, Isaac works out Juba’s location, but there are two problems: one, he needs a sniper rifle of his own to try and eliminate the Iraqi, and the only one available to him is out in the open alongside Matthews; and two, he needs to do so before the arrival of a rescue team Juba has tricked into coming…
Like any thriller that attempts to present audiences with a tough, uncompromising villain, The Wall stands or falls on just how tough and uncompromising said villain truly is. And at first it seems that Juba will fit the bill quite nicely. Shooting Matthews in the gut, and Isaac in the knee (deliberately), displays a sadistic quality that bodes well for any tension going forward, but it’s not long before the needs of the script ensure that this aspect is either played down, forgotten, or ignored in favour of the less than scintillating exchanges between Juba and Isaac that pepper around an hour of the movie’s running time. These exchanges range from being intriguing (why does Juba want to know about the scope that Isaac uses?) to existential (why is Isaac still in country?) to crushingly banal (who is the real terrorist?). The answer to all these questions are forthcoming but as these conversations continue, you begin to realise that by setting up the wait for the rescue team, Worrell hasn’t worked out just how to keep the interim period compelling enough to keep audiences interested in each step of the cat-and-mouse game that’s playing out.
Inevitably there’s a terrible secret that Isaac has been hiding, but by the time we get to it, it doesn’t have the impact that Worrell and Liman are hoping for, partly because it’s yet another occasion where someone in a stressful situation has something terrible to reveal about themselves – and how many times have we witnessed that particular scenario? – and partly because by the time it is revealed we don’t really care because it’s an attempt to add depth to a character that didn’t need it in the first place. It’s enough for Isaac to be in peril from a hidden sniper; we don’t need to know if he’s suffering from guilt or PTSD or any lingering childhood traumas that might stop him from surviving this encounter. All we need to know is: is he going to be clever enough to find a way out of his predicament and take out Juba? For the most part the answer is yes, but there’s too much unnecessary banter getting in the way. Sometimes, movie makers can’t see that a simple set up such as this one doesn’t need to be anything more than what it is. What we want to see bravery and ingenuity and determination under pressure. What we don’t want to see is our lead character going through a crisis of confidence every ten minutes.
Messrs Liman and Worrell would probably claim that they’re just adding to the tension, but in reality they’re allowing it to ebb and flow (mostly ebb), whereas if they just concentrated on ratcheting up the tension continuously and making the situation as unbearable as possible for viewers to watch, then their movie would be improved tremendously. This is definitely not the case here, with long stretches where Isaac propels himself backwards and forwards along the wall to little effect, and moments where the screen goes dark while he takes a nap. And Liman and Worrell don’t seem to have realised the obvious flaw in their presentation of Juba’s skill as a sniper. When he ambushes Isaac he fires three shots; all three have specific targets: Isaac’s radio antenna, his water bottle, and his right knee. And yet, there are numerous point of view shots through Juba’s scope that shows he couldn’t possibly have achieved those hits thanks to how blurry the image is. And later, when Isaac is finally pushed into making his move, Juba’s accuracy deserts him. Tough? Maybe. Uncompromising? Sometimes. As deadly as his reputation would have it? Hmmm…
Despite huge problems with the narrative, The Wall does have its good points. Liman is a great visual stylist and he makes the most of the desert location. He also moves the camera around to good effect, and in conjunction with editor Julia Bloch, ensures the movie has a rhythm that offsets some of the slower sections and keeps everything flowing. He elicits a good performance from Taylor-Johnson who anchors the movie without quite making the viewer entirely sympathetic toward him (you never feel the urge to shout “Go on, get the sonofabitch!” or anything similar during his time behind the wall), and who at least makes Isaac’s unhappy emotional and physical state more credible than it may look. Cena doesn’t have a lot to do, but he’s becoming an actor for whom the perceived stigma of being a WWE Superstar no longer holds as much sway, and his is a solid portrayal. And Nakli uses his voice as a character all by itself and manages to display a convincing range of emotions without ever being seen. The movie as a whole is watchable despite its faults, but what it doesn’t do is draw you in completely and then leave you drained and breathless at the end.
Rating: 5/10 – lacking the consistency of tension that would have made it a more compelling and absorbing experience, The Wall never quite makes the most of its single setting and its minimal cast of characters; Liman manages to inject a degree of verve into proceedings, and the desert visuals are bleakly beautiful, but be warned, this is also a movie where the ending may leave you thinking, what the hell was the point of it all?